Thursday, April 15, 2010
Death and Sickness: Camp Lejeune's Toxic Water Legacy
Camp Lejeune is one of the 130 military bases on the EPA National Priority List (Superfund list). Many of them contaminated with the same organic solvents as Camp Lejeune. There’s no government policy to notify veterans and dependents of their possible exposure to toxic contaminants. Thousands have served on these Superfund bases. The number exposed and ill is impossible to estimate.
The Agency for Toxic Substance Disease Registry (ATSDR)—a Federal government agency responsible for public health assessments of EPA Superfund sites— reported health problems in people of all ages from drinking water contaminated with organic solvents. These include aplastic anemia, bladder cancer, brain cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, esophageal cancer, and Hodgkin’s disease.
According to Congressional testimony on Lejeune’s wells from Dr. Thomas Sinks in July 2007, “ATSDR has collected medical records…Fifty-seven children confirmed as having a condition of interest include 17 children with a neural tube defect, 24 children with a cleft lip or palate, and 16 children with leukemia or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. An additional 42 possible case children were either confirmed not to have the condition, refused to participate, or had no available medical records. The status for an additional 7 children is still pending…birth defects and cancer does not, by itself, tell us whether these conditions are associated with exposure to contaminated water”.
The contaminated wells from the Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point water distribution systems were closed years ago. The legacy of the health effects of the exposure to the contamination continues to plague former residents of the base.
Congressional legislation was introduced this year in both the House (HR 4555, Janey Ensminger Act) and the Senate (Senator Akaka’s original bill) to provide health care coverage to both Camp Lejeune veterans and dependents.
A Senate Veterans Affairs Committee bill introduced by Senator Daniel Akaka (D, Hi) in January 2010, is still awaiting a Committee report before a bill number can be assigned and the bill moved to the Senate floor. Major differences between the two bills present formidable barriers to the passage of any compromise legislation. For example, HR 4555 provides for health coverage by the Department of Veterans Affairs while Senator Akaka’s bill would give both veterans and dependents access to the Defense Department’s TRICARE health insurance system.
Camp Lejeune survivors have set-up several websites to help spread the word of contamination to other survivors and to advocate for them.
The STAND (www.watersurvivors.com) was established in 2000 by Terry Dyler who was nearly 2 when her family moved to Lejeune’s Tarawa Terrace, where they lived from 1958 to 1973. She and her two sisters all have had radical hysterectomies. They are the only women in the family to have to undergo this procedure. She said they suffered miscarriages, thyroid conditions, tumors, cysts, skin diseases, and asthma. Terry continues to suffer from repeated bouts of bladder cancer. Dyler’s father now dead was a civilian employee of the Marine Corps. The Congressional bills do not provide any medical coverage or other compensation for civilian workers injured from Lejeune’s contaminated wells.
The Few, the Proud, The Forgotten (www.tftptf.com), is another Lejeune website. One of the founders of this site is Jerry Ensminger who served nearly a quarter century in the Corps, and spent ten years at Camp Lejeune in the 1970s and 80s. Ensminger said he didn’t learn about the contamination until the 90s. It was then that he learned the death of Janey from leukemia, was linked to the contaminated well water at Lejeune. Mike Partain, a dependent born on the base, another member, tracked down male breast cancer victims, an extremely rare form of cancer. Partain discovered he had breast cancer at the very early age of 39. A CNN story in 2009 on Lejeune’s male breast cancer helped to the identify over 50 Lejeune veterans with this disease.
Life After Camp Lejeune (www.lifeaftercamplejeune.com) is another website established by a veteran of the base. John Hartung, a former Camp Lejeune Marine from Wisconsin, was awarded a 30% VA disability over illnesses contracted from the base’s toxic water. Hartung’s website is the latest attempt to use the internet as a resource for Lejeune veterans and dependents.
Two emails to The STAND from former Lejeune dependents who lived at Tarawa Terrace illustrate the serious health effects of exposure to toxic contaminants and the critical need for government health insurance (their last names are withheld at the families’ request):
Monica, a former Navy dependent and resident of Tarawa Terrace said that: “I have just spent 8 days at Pitt Memorial from coughing up blood. I was diagnosed at age 18 with Hodgkin’s disease, I have had 4 pulmonary emboli, thyroid disease, skin problems, and even open heart surgery that went bad due to radiation therapy messing up my jugular vein wall. Now they think I have lung cancer or my Hodgkin’s is back. I go to the Leo Jenkins Cancer Center on April 15, 2010 to find out. I am only 49 and they last survivor of my family. My father was a Navy Corpsman that was stationed there from 1955 to his retirement due to bladder cancer in 1968. We lived in TT for 2 years while my parents built their home in Swansboro. He had numerous cancer and health issues that plagued him throughout his life. My mother had 5 miscarriages between my 2 brothers and me. One brother committed suicide and the other is estranged from me but I was told he died or is dying of cancer that is throughout his body. My Father was one of the most highly decorated men in the Korean War, if you have ever heard of that. The government did not care about him or his family. Please help me if you can. I am not sure how much longer I have and do not know where to turn. I want to talk to congress and show them all my scars and let them tell me to my face they did not do this to me. I am sure there are millions of cases just like me.”
Monica said her husband was laid off in January and their COBRA payments are $1,000 per month. COBRA health insurance gives workers and their families who lose their health benefits the right to choose to continue group health benefits provided by their group health plan for limited periods of time under certain circumstances such as job loss. Both Monica and her husband now work part-time jobs. If she is unable to work, then it will be impossible pay for COBRA at a time when she especially needs the coverage.
Husband Dead at 25, Daughter Stillborn
Candyce, another resident of Tarawa Terrace, said that “My late husband George and I were and I were stationed at Camp Lejeune from 1970-1972. We lived at Tarawa Terrace. There we conceived a daughter, Michelle. My pregnancy was normal until September 14, 1972, when our lives changed forever. Michelle was still born. The cause of death was intra uterine asphyxia, placental insufficiency. No one had any answers to give us. The nurse asked if we would like to see her. At first, I hesitated and then we decided we just had to see her. When I held her in my arms, she looked like any sleeping baby. She had a little round head and a button nose. I checked her fingers and toes. She was just perfect. Then they came to take her and there was nothing to do but cry. It seems that’s all I did for the longest time. They say ‘Time heals all wounds.’ But that’s not quite true. You never get over the loss of a child.”
“We had two sons not conceived at Camp Lejeune…one is showing signs of the chemical effects as his oldest daughter. Tragedy struck again when I was 5 months pregnant when our youngest son George was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia cancer of the blood and bone marrow (what they call a child’s disease). He suffered terribly. He received chemotherapy plus he had to endure tests on his bone marrow, which meant a needle inserted into his ribs to extract his bone marrow for testing. On January 15, 1977, he died just five days before our youngest son turned one. George was 25 years old. I now found myself a widow with two small children. I was 23 years old. When we went to make the funeral arrangements for George, I was horrified by the statement of the funeral director that George had ‘swelled up like a balloon and his face was terribly discolored.’ Something they had never seen in all the years they have been doing this. It required a closed casket. I felt like I never got a chance to say a real goodbye. It broke my heart.”
“My health problems began in 1989. It started with my back and I have been in excruciating pain ever since. My medical history is long and complicated over the years I have suffered numerous ailments. I have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. My other illnesses include failed back syndrome, which includes 3 failed back surgeries, a failed spinal column stimulator, daily migraine headaches, plus bone and muscle deterioration. I have two metal discs implanted into my back. This was designed to help the remaining three discs by relieving the pressure on them. I also have two titanium screws fused into my spine. I have been told by doctors that my medical condition will never improve and that eventually I will end up in a wheelchair.”
For Monica, Candyce and thousands of other Camp Lejeune victims, the need for medical care coverage is critical. The unanswered question is whether the legislation will be passed in time before it’s too late.
BETRAYAL tells the story of the thousands of veterans and their families, once stationed at El Toro and Camp Lejeune, who continued to be ignored by the U.S. government by denial of the effects of exposure to environmental hazards, including the highest incidence of occurrence of male breast cancer in any other demographic in the U.S. at Camp Lejeune. Legislation to provide health care for Camp Lejeune veterans and their dependents was passed in the 112th Congress. No veteran compensation was included in the Janey Ensminger Act. None of the veterans that served aboard these two installations were notified of their exposure to deadly contaminants when it was discovered resulting in both bases earning Superfund Cleanup Site status. Many veterans have died without ‘connecting the dots’ between their killing diseases and military service.
BETRAYAL includes the story of the death and murder of Marine Colonel James E. Sabow and other Marines whose deaths have are tied to use of El Toro assets during the 1980s and 1990s to import South American cocaine into the U.S and to export guns to the Contra Rebel faction of Nicaragua. Demanding a court martial to clear his name of false charges and threatening to blow the whistle on the use of El Toro’s assets to support narcotrafficing, Colonel Sabow was found dead in his quarters by his wife on January 22, 1991. The circumstances surrounding his death and the forensic evidence from the crime scene support murder by a government assassination team, crime scene tampering and government cover-up at the highest levels, including a ‘doctored autopsy photograph’ submitted in an Defense Department report in 2004 to Congress. There’s more than enough evidence to support a formal inquest and criminal investigation by the Justice Department.
BETRAYAL reports the denial of responsibility and the cover-up to hide the truth of environmental contamination from veterans, their dependents, and the public at El Toro, once the premier Marine Corps jet fighter base. These include no usage records on TCE and other organic solvents used on the base for decades; Marine Corps’ denial of ownership of the TCE plume spreading into Orange County for 16 years until a lawsuit forced the government to accept responsibility; loss of the official government contract procurement file for the municipal water purchase with the Irvine Ranch Water District; loss of all of the original well construction drawings; over 40 years of water distribution engineering drawings missing; no records on the dates the base wells were abandoned but several engineering drawings showing the base wells part of the water distribution system after the early purchase of a small quantity of softened municipal water; unexplained cut-off of pumping records, and a radiation contaminated hangar shuddered and sealed in 2012, ten years after the Navy reported the hangar free of radiation.
BETRAYAL provides the legal argument for presumptive disability compensation for Lejeune Marines who currently have access to the VA for 15 medical conditions associated with organic solvent and benzene exposure to contaminated well water on the base over a 30 year period (1953-1987). For other military installations that are on the EPA Superfund list of the most hazardous environmental site in the U.S., the VA Regional offices don’t have the scientific expertise to objectively evaluate disability claims from exposure to toxic chemicals.
BETRAYAL supports an argument for a Science Advisory Board within the VA with support staff of scientists with backgrounds in environmental exposure, environmental assessment, heath monitoring, and other relevant fields to objectively evaluate the risk of toxic exposure. Taking care of veterans should be one of this country’s highest priorities. There’s a critical need for medical monitoring of veterans exposed to toxic chemicals and the evaluation of disability claims from Superfund sites by scientists with environmental exposure backgrounds. The VA’s current system provides no routine medical care monitoring for those at risk for toxic exposures while veterans are left to their own resources and skills to file disability claims frequently denied by administrative staff without input from scientists with backgrounds in environmental exposures. For example, the disability denial rate for Camp Lejeune veterans is about 84%. You can get better odds at winning any given hand of blackjack.