By Catherine Clabby

Some of the hundreds of thousands of people exposed to hazardous drinking water at Camp Lejeune have something to celebrate this month.

A federal rule activated last week grants automatic disability status to U.S. Marine Corps veterans who lived at Camp Lejeune from 1953 to 1987 and who suffer from any of eight illnesses linked to exposure to chemicals in drinking water on base during those years.

Jerry Ensminger getting sworn in before testifying before the U.S. House Science and Technology committee in 2008. Photo courtesy: Jerry Ensminger

Yet much remains undone for possibly a million people exposed to potential poisons at Lejeune, says Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine master sergeant who for 20 has fought for better transparency and accountability over tainted water at the  base.

“It’s a success but it’s a bittersweet accomplishment. I still get emails and private messages and instagrams and phone calls from all kinds of family members asking: What about us? I don’t know what the hell to tell them,” said Ensminger, who founded the advocacy and support group, The Few, The Proud, the Forgotten.

Drinking water at living quarters and workplaces on the sprawling Jacksonville base contained hazardous concentrations of chemical contaminants from the1950s to 1985, federal research  has confirmed. Trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), vinyl chloride and other hazardous compounds, including benzene were among them.

An off-base dry cleaner was one source. So was contamination in an industrial area on the base, where underground storage tanks leaked, spills occurred and potentially toxic substances were dumped.

The pollutants documented in Lejeune water wells likely increased the risk of many illnesses — including different forms of cancer — among Marines and Naval personnel, their families and civilian workers, say scientists with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

How many men, women and children got sick? That’s still unknown.

A poisoned legacy

Jerry Ensminger and his daughter Janey. Photo courtesy: Jerry Ensminger

For Ensminger, a retired Marine Corps master sergeant, and many others, this fight to make the federal government help anyone sick from drinking water at Lejeune is personal.

He, with his first wife and their children, called Camp Lejeune home for 11 out of his 24 years in the military. Only one of their four children, Janey, was conceived and carried “aboard” the Jacksonville base.

At age six, Janey was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia and, after much suffering, died at age nine in 1985. Ensminger, who now lives in White Lake, NC, was baffled by the cause until 1997, when a local television station reported that contaminated water at LeJeune might be dangerous.

First he dropped his dinner plate, he said. Then he got to work.

Since then, Ensminger and others, including Florida resident Mike Partain, have been fighting. They’ve dug up documents that have been instrumental in exposing the extent of the contamination and what they say are inexcusable delays in addressing it. For more than a decade, the Navy pushed back; the U.S. Justice Department has challenged family member lawsuits in courts.

But advocates have successfully lobbied for independent scientific assessments of the risks and convinced members of Congress that the Department of Veterans Affairs needed to be forced to accept and apply the best science in benefits rulings.

Their organization, The Few, The Proud, the Forgotten, archives thousands of pages of military records, scientific reports regarding health research, and hydrogeology studies detailing how pollution plumes flowed underground to contaminate drinking wells at Lejeune.

Jerry Ensminger, Mike Partain and their allies have have built archives of thousands of pages of documents demonstrating the length, severity and extent of drinking water contamination at Camp Lejeune. This annotated map shows contaminated wells within the Hadnot Point Industrial area on the base, which once included a on-base refueling station. TCE stands for trichloroethylene.

Most heartbreaking are accounts by mothers who gave birth to children with a malformed heart, spine or skull. ATSDR has concluded that the available evidence suggests that first-trimester pregnancy exposure to the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune increased the chances that a child would be diagnosed with a neural tube defect, leukemia or non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

A 2012 law, pushed hard by Sen Richard Burr, R-NC, former Sen Kay Hagan, D-NC and former Rep Brad Miller, D-NC among others, laid groundwork for the program that goes into effect this month by authorizing medical care to veterans and (to a degree) family members who lived at Lejeune between 1957 and 1987.

The program, which could cost $2 billion, applies to 15 specific ailments research links to such diseases as cancers of the bladder, breast, esophagus, lung, or kidney; leukemia; non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; and multiple myeloma. Also covered are myelodysplastic syndrome, renal toxicity, hepatic steatosis, female infertility, miscarriage, scleroderma and neurobehavioral effects.

The new Veterans Affairs rule presumes that veterans who lived at Lejeune for at least 30 days between 1953 and 1987 now qualify for disability benefits if diagnosed with liver cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, scleroderma, Parkinson’s disease and aplastic anemia / myelodysplastic syndromes.

Work undone

After a pregnancy at Camp Lejeune, Mike Partain’s mother holds him the day he was born at Camp Lejeune Naval Hospital. At bottom left is a bottle of formula mixed with Camp Lejeune water, which Partain was exposed to before and after his birth. He is among the former Camp Lejeune residents diagnosed with highly rare male breast cancer. Photo courtesy of Mike Partain

Partain, the son and grandson of Marine Corps officers, was born at Camp Lejeune in 1968. Ten years ago, at age 39, he was diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease on the VA list but rare among men. It was unknown in his family before he received his diagnosis.

His mother drank water in her base housing during the pregnancy and fed him with baby formula mixed with that water from the day of his birth until they left when he was four months old. He wonders if his early exposure led to his cancer.

“I didn’t have a choice to be born at Camp Lejeune,” Partain said.

But family members who lived on base and drank the water don’t have access to the disability payments, free life insurance and the rest available to veterans with the associated illnesses. The 2012 bill made Veterans Affairs medical care the coverage of last resort, after all other health insurance coverage is exhausted.

“The husband has kidney cancer and he is able to get death benefits and so forth. The wife is entitled only medical support as a last resort. Does that mean that the dependants are less worthy than their Marines family members?” Partain asked.

Photo courtesy: Jerry Enminster

In its defense, the VA has noted it does not have legal authority to offer those benefits to family members.

Some veterans still do not get the benefits they deserve, Partain and Ensminger maintain. So their group and the Vietnam Veterans of America, with a Yale Law School clinic, are suing the VA to produce records it has withheld on its “subject matter expert program,” which advocates say does not apply the latest science when judging disability applications tied to Lejeune water.

Terrence Hayes, a spokesman for VA, said the federal agency cannot comment on ongoing litigation.

Both Ensminger and Partain also want the Marine Corps to take explicit responsibility for damage done in Jacksonville. It has not escaped their notice that members of Congress, including Tillis, are pushing for current-day Marines to be punished for posting nude photographs of woman Marines on the Internet without obtaining permission.

“I understand this should be a real and serious concern,” Ensminger said of the photo scandal. “However, where’s the accountability for the people responsible for contaminating hundreds of thousands of Marines, their families and civilian employees?”

Correction: This story was modified to correct the dates when veterans, reservists, and National Guard members with one of eight illnesses must have lived at Camp Lejeune to qualify for disability status. The dates are August 1953 through December 1987.

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Catherine Clabby

Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...

5 replies on “Camp Lejeune Toxic Water Battle Continues”

  1. Thank you for changing the dates. Had a huge impact because I was born there in 1955. I knew it started before 57 because of all the little severely handicapped children that I went to school with, and thought nothing of it at the time. I was born with a cleft palate and harelip. There were a lot of children with that birth defect in my elementary school. Guess we should just be happy we survived. My mom lost a baby there, and died from liver cancer and diabetes, and my father died from stomach cancer and Parkinsons. We lived there on and off for six years, Camp Knox, Midway Park and Paradise Point. So sad that our beloved corps betrayed their faithful, loyal servants and their children this way.

    1. Government created ATSDR in 1980
      ATSDR serves the PUBLIC by using the BEST science and provides TRUSTED health information to prevent….
      ATSDR funds 25 partner organizations.
      CDC mission; protects our NATION against EXPENSIVE and dangerous health THREATS. They have a PLEDGE too.
      ATSDR camp lejune reported health effectsTCE/PCE, benzene and vinyl chloride…NO PD, but neurological effects.
      ATSDR I found term cerebelar ATAXIA.
      ATSDR states the chemically tainted drinking water didn’t pose an increased cancer risk..that report was used to DENY claim(s) A month after the SUBvommittee hearing, ATSDR rescinded some of its findings.
      ATSDR report on a BOMD TESTING site in VIEQUES, PUERTO RICO, testing ammunitions that contained DEPLETED URANIUM and other TOXINS wern’t harmful to the people living there, it MODIFIED this report too
      FRUMKIN/2005 NAMED director, he was aware of the agency problems but did little to fix them UNLESS under POLITICAL PRESSURE.
      ATSDR/2007 FORMALDEHYDE FUMES in FEMA trailers (KATRINA/HURRICANE VICS) were nothing to WORRY about/
      ATSDR very RARELY, if ever, gets a PEER reviews, they see opinions of outside scientists as UNWELCOME and MEDDLING.
      ATSDR, FEMA came to them and said WE “have been SUED”
      ATSDR, ProPublica reported to FRUMKIN that ATSDR (BOTCHED) a study on trailers provided to KATRINA victims.
      ATSDR creates a (CAP) COMMUNITY ASSISTANCE PANEL for the camp lejune site. statement; This shows at the VA they are more interested in POLITICS and protecting their turf and their BONUSES than FULFIL their MISSION to assist veterans. If they dole out cash, other veterans would want some too.

      this comment has been truncated because of excessive length

  2. Back when MBC awareness groups could have held meetings in a phone booth . The Le Jeune toxic waste scandal was a 60 Minutes topic. IIRC the USN was in complete denial at the time. Mike Partain is the guy who kicked the lid off. Dark days for MBC Awareness. Mike’s was advanced before diagnosis caught it. Men did’nt have breasts and those who did,hid them. Now 20 yrs later, they are niggling on dependent care. The Service is rough on dependents. My wife flew across the the Atlantic on MATS DC3s when she was an Air Force brat. Keep out lasting the bastards, Mike.

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