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Project on Government Oversight

Toxic Secrecy: The Marine Corps' Cover-up of Water Contamination at Camp Lejeune

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June 29, 2011

It's been called one of the worst toxic contaminations in the country. It's also possibly one of the U.S. military's most shameful acts of deception and betrayal. Between 1957 and 1987, as many as one million Marines and their family members at Camp Lejeune drank, bathed in, and cooked with water contaminated by various volatile organic compounds--some at levels as high as 280 times what is considered safe under law. For years, the Marine Corps kept this secret, blocking many attempts to uncover the truth--even after the first news of water contamination broke in 1987.

Many Marines who ingested contaminated water at Camp Lejuene, the largest Marine base on the East Coast, have died or lost family members, especially children with extreme birth defects or leukemia--and many more still are sick and dying with rare cancers and other ailments believed to be linked to the water contamination. Civilian employees who worked on the base and people who live in the communities around the base near Jacksonville, NC, are also reporting a high incidence of cancers. And yet the plight of these victims and the lack of accountability by the Marine Corps are not well known.

A new, powerful documentary seeks to change that, and bring some much-needed attention to the ongoing suffering and injustice. Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon’s Semper Fi: Always Faithful is a moving portrayal of Marine Corps Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger. Ensminger is a former drill sergeant of twenty-five years who searched for years after his tour at Camp Lejeune for answers: Why did his nine-year-old die of a rare type of leukemia? Why did so many other infants and children die at Camp Lejeune? Why do former residents of Camp Lejeune have the largest cluster of male breast cancer ever documented?

After years of relentless researching, Jerry, along with Tom Townsend, Mike Partain and a handful of others finally exposed the truth: The United States Marine Corps knowingly allowed marines and civilians to be exposed to a host of toxic chemicals, including known human carcinogens benzene and vinyl chloride. They gleaned the truth in part from information accidentally (and temporarily) posted on the internet by the Marine Corps, as many of their Freedom of Information Act requests were denied. Anyone interested in the military, the environment, health, freedom of information, or justice--basically everyone--should see this film.

Though Jerry and the other truth-seekers were eventually victorious in proving exposure at Camp Lejeune to high levels of known carcinogens, the travesty is ongoing. The Marine Corps continues to betray its own by having done next to nothing to care for, treat, or compensate the Camp Lejeune victims.

Legislation is now moving in Congress to at least provide health and nursing care for those exposed to toxins at Camp Lejeune. Today, the Senate Committee on Veteran’s Affairs will vote on a Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act, S. 277, a bill introduced by Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Kay Hagen (D-NC). A companion bill named for Jerry’s daughter, the Janey Ensminger Act, H.R. 1742, was introduced by Representative Brad Miller (D-NC) and has several bipartisan cosponsors.

Though it is an outrage, it appears it will take an act of Congress to provide the care that is owed to the Marines and their families. Such a measure was passed for victims of Agent Orange, and it seems it is the very least that is owed to the Camp Lejeune victims. The House and Senate should make this legislation law this year.

Unfortunately, the extent to which our troops and civilians working on and living near military facilities have been harmed by toxic chemicals is not known. There are at least 130 other bases across the U.S. that are also on the EPA cleanup list--and those are just the officially confirmed contaminations. Secrecy by the military continues…

In fact, POGO has been fighting a secrecy measure recently included in the defense budget. As originally proposed by the Dept. of the Navy, the extremely broad exemption to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) under the guise of protecting “Critical Infrastructure Information” from terrorists would allow exactly the kind of information relating to the Camp Lejeune water contamination to be withheld from the public (along with all kinds of other information that is not in the public interest or in the interest of national security to withhold).

This proposed FOIA exemption appears to be in direct response to this year’s Supreme Court decision in Milner v. Navy, which narrowed the use of Exemption 2. In fact, according to Mike Partain, who was an infant at Camp Lejeune and has male breast cancer, Exemption 2 was frequently used by the Marine Corps to withhold records about the water contamination. Having no other exemption to lawfully use to keep such information secret after Milner could be one motivation for the Department of Defense (DoD) in seeking the secrecy provision in the defense budget.

Fortunately, last month, Rep. Maloney (D-NY) succeeded in offering an amendment to the House National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that POGO supported to help ensure that information in the public interest, particularly regarding health and safety, is not withheld under the exemption by claiming national security.

The DoD has a responsibility to protect our national security interests, but that duty must be balanced with other public interests. Rep. Maloney’s amendment narrows the DoD’s ability to claim the exemption FOIA under the premise of protecting critical infrastructure and strikes the right balance between security and other public interests such as health and safety.

Now the Senate must likewise amend the FOIA exemption in the defense budget to make Camp Lejeune cover-ups more difficult. The Senate is expected to take up the NDAA after the August recess. 

We cannot allow for more military cover-ups and must hold DoD accountable for all health hazards caused by our military throughout the U.S. and the world. Congress can start by guaranteeing Camp Lejeune veterans and their families’ health care, and by denying DoD the ability to keep their deadly mistakes secret.

UPDATE: The Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act (S. 277), has passed out of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs with bipartisan support.

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO’s investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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