By Greg Barnes

The failure Tuesday by members of the U.S. House to override President Trump’s emergency declaration could mean millions of dollars being diverted from military bases in North Carolina and other states to build 57 miles of a border wall separating the U.S. from Mexico.

When Trump made his declaration in mid-February, he tapped Department of Defense construction accounts to cover half of the price tag.

Among the North Carolina projects in jeopardy of losing the DoD funding is a $65 million water treatment plant at Camp Lejeune Marine base, where as many as 900,000 troops and family members were exposed to contaminated drinking water between 1953 and 1987.

At Fort Bragg, the Army post could lose millions of dollars meant to replace an aging elementary school, as well as money for other proposed projects, including medical and dental clinics.

Democrats fell about 40 votes short — 248 to 181 — in their attempt to override Trump’s veto of his national emergency declaration to fund the wall. They needed a two-thirds majority to kill the executive order.

A decision on whether to proceed will now be up to the courts hearing lawsuits challenging the declaration by 16 state attorneys general and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Devil in the details

Last week, the Pentagon sent a 20-page list of military construction projects to Congress that could be delayed or canceled to pay for the wall. The list of cuts on military installations includes projects in almost all 50 states and more than two dozen countries where troops are stationed. It totals $12.9 billion.

The list includes military funding in North Carolina for the water treatment plant and a radio complex at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, as well as an ambulatory care center/dental clinic there and in New River; airfield security improvements and an aircraft maintenance hangar at Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station in Havelock; an air traffic control tower and a tanker truck delivery system at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro; and a combat medic training center and replacement of Butner Elementary School at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville.

Nathaniel Fahy, a spokesman for Camp Lejeune, said it doesn’t appear likely that the water treatment plant will be affected by the proposed funding transfers because it has already been approved for funding. Under the emergency declaration, Fahy said, only projects awarded after Sept. 30 of this year are subject to the order.

Tom McCollum, a spokesman for Fort Bragg, said it would be premature to say how the proposed funding cuts could affect the Army post.

“Sorry I cannot be more definitive but right now, we don’t know with certainty how we will be impacted and we don’t want to speculate,” McCollum said in an email. He said each layer of command “can reassess priorities in order to continue projects while freeing up funds.”

Talk of replacing Butner Elementary School began in 2015. The Pentagon’s list shows the project would cost nearly $33 million.

Contamination at Camp Lejeune

The new water treatment plant for the Hadnot Point community on Camp Lejeune would replace one found in 1984 to have been contaminated by the dry cleaning and industrial solvents trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE). The water plant largely served served primarily enlisted housing for soldiers and their families.

Jerry Ensminger takes an oath before testifying before Congress in 2008.
Jerry Ensminger getting sworn in before testifying before the U.S. House Science and Technology committee in 2008. He spent decades battling the Department of the Navy over contamination of well water Ensminger believes contributed to the death of his daughter from cancer. Photo courtesy: Jerry Ensminger

Ten drinking water wells were removed from service in 1984 and 1985, according to the Marine Corps, and no contamination in drinking water has been detected today.

In January, the Navy announced that it was denying all remaining civil claims filed by roughly 4,500 people with alleged exposure to the contamination.

In 2017, the Obama administration agreed to provide disability benefits totaling more than $2 billion to veterans who were assigned to Camp Lejeune and had been exposed to the contamination.

Fahy said a new water treatment plant will replace one built in the 1960s that relies on a lime and sand filtration system. The new plant will use membrane filtration technology that removes saltwater and other impurities out of the groundwater. The technology is already used in other cities along the coast, including Jacksonville and Emerald Isle, Fahy said.

“The drinking water at Camp Lejeune currently meets all government drinking water standards and is tested more often than required,” he said.

‘Serious concerns’

On Tuesday, high-ranking Democrats who serve on congressional defense committees wrote a letter to Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan asking how the transfer of money to build the wall will affect military readiness initiatives this year.

We strongly object to both the substance of the funding transfer, and to the Department implementing the transfer without seeking the approval of the congressional defense committees and in violation of provisions in the defense appropriation itself,” the senators wrote. “As a result, we have serious concerns that the Department has allowed political interference and pet projects to come ahead of many near-term, critical readiness issues facing our military.”

The senators noted a list of what they said were substantial funding shortfalls, including $1.5 billion in proposals to speed cleanup and reconstruction of Camp Lejeune and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, which were hit hard by hurricanes.

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Greg Barnes

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years. Contact him at: gregbarnes401 at