Holding the Government Accountable

New Book Examines Camp Lejeune Water Poisoning

For the past 10 years, Mike Magner has been writing about water contamination at Camp Lejeune, a U.S. Marine Corps base in North Carolina. Now, Magner’s most recent book, A Trust Betrayed: The Untold Story of Camp Lejeune and the Poisoning of Generations of Marines and Their Families, shows how those affected by the contamination began fighting for government recognition and healthcare assistance. A Trust Betrayed is Magner’s second book, following Poisoned Legacy: The Human Cost of BP’s Rise to Power, which was published in 2011.

Magner is currently a managing editor at the National Journal in Washington, D.C. A native of South Bend, Ind. and a graduate of Georgetown University, he and his wife, son and daughter live in Arlington, Va.

POGO: You begin the book by telling the story of the Townsends and their son who died shortly after being born because of the contamination at Camp Lejeune. Was there anything specific that drew you to their story?

Magner: The Townsends’ story is both tragic and heroic: Tom was a career Marine officer who did two tours in Vietnam only to lose a baby boy because the military was not vigilant about providing safe drinking water for his family at the base. Then he and his wife spent 30 years after their son died in 1967 thinking they may have been somehow responsible. When they found out in 1997 the death could be linked to the contaminated water, the couple was so outraged that they spent the rest of their lives demanding accountability from the military and the government. Their undying quest and the furious efforts by Jerry Ensminger and others made sure the horrible problems caused by Camp Lejeune’s poisoned wells could not be swept under the rug.

POGO: How did you become interested in the Camp Lejeune story and why do you think it has only recently been receiving widespread attention? Did you go into the story knowing it would make a good book

Magner: About 10 years ago I was working on a story about contaminated military sites for an environmental news service when I came across Tom Townsend and Jerry Ensminger, former Marines who believed tainted water at Camp Lejeune killed their children. They connected me with others who were affected and the story grew from there. I did think it had the makings for a book – the Marine Corps poisoning its own people and trying to cover it up – but I never imagined it would continue playing out for another full decade. When Congress passed a law in 2012 providing health care to Lejeune victims, I realized this was a story all Americans should know about, because the military’s negligence was already costing taxpayers’ money and had the potential to cost much, much more. Plus it was a shocking case of the U.S. military failing to take care of thousands of men and women who served the country honorably.

I think the reason it has taken so long to get attention is because the story has been slow developing – the health studies have dragged out for years, the cleanup at the base has gone at a snail’s pace, and many people who were exposed in the ’60s and ’70s and early ’80s did not see the effects until years later. It has only been the relentless pressure from the victims that has kept the government moving forward with investigations, and the story still has several chapters to be written.

POGO: Your first book, "Poisoned Legacy: The Human Cost of BP's Rise to Power" also details the lives of victims of misconduct, though in that case the perpetrator was a private corporation. Are there parallels between the stories? Are there common lessons?

Magner: One common thread in both books is that large institutions, private and public, tend to cut corners whenever possible to save a little money, sometimes putting the health and safety of their own people at risk. BP ignored signs that its deep well in the Gulf of Mexico might blow in order to get the drilling started as quickly as possible, leading to the deaths of 11 workers and the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. The company also blatantly violated safety standards at its Texas refinery in 2005 in order to cut costs, causing an explosion that killed 15 people and injured more than 180 others. In the case of Camp Lejeune, the military disregarded warning signs that some of its wells were contaminated for years, partly because administrators didn’t want to have to deal with possible water shortages if any were shut down.

In the end, both BP and the USMC will spend far more than they saved by violating health and safety standards. BP has already paid billions for Gulf cleanup and faces billions more in fines and penalties; the Pentagon is looking at billions of dollars in liabilities because it failed to spend a few million more in the ’70s and ’80s to provide clean water.

POGO: Based on your research, what do you think is the biggest problem with environmental regulation at U.S. military bases? What reform would you like to see in this area?

Magner: Government is regulating itself, and the military has been able to bully EPA and federal scientists.

The biggest problem is you have the most powerful department in government, the DoD, being investigated by much weaker agencies such as the EPA and the CDC. In essence it is the government regulating itself, with the Pentagon often bullying well-intentioned scientists trying to do their jobs. This is the reason it has taken three decades to address pollution issues at Camp Lejeune with no clear end in sight; it’s also why hundreds of other installations have seen little cleanup and why thousands of people exposed to military contamination are getting little help from the government.

The only way the situation will improve is if Congress demands it – by providing adequate resources for environmental enforcement and research – or if the courts order it.

POGO: You've been an investigative journalist for many years, how do you think the role of professional reporters/news agencies in exposing secrets to the public will change in the future?

Magner: This is very worrisome as news agencies continue tightening their belts while reinventing themselves for the digital world. Fewer organizations have budgets for investigative journalism, which tends to be long on reporting and shorter on actual stories. Yet deeper coverage can have far more impact – consider the New York Times expose of GM’s safety flaws and the Washington Post’s disturbing reports on shabby treatment of our veterans.

There are bright spots that bode well for the future – programs like VICE on HBO, for example – but if the trend toward superficial reporting grows at the expense of in-depth stories, the outlook for a strong Fourth Estate is bleak.