Project On Government Oversight (POGO) and allies are pressing the Pentagon and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to come clean about water contamination at the U.S. Marine Corps base, Camp Lejeune—where Marines, civilians, and their families were poisoned by the water they used and drank, but have yet to see justice after years of secrecy. Their plight was recently featured in the Academy Awards short-listed film, Semper Fi: Always Faithful, which documents the catastrophic effects of the contamination and resulting cover-up.
Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine who lived at Camp Lejeune with his family, told POGO that the Department of the Navy has often concealed crucial information about the water contamination. Ensminger lost his young daughter to leukemia and has worked tirelessly to uncover the truth about the contamination.
“I find it rather disheartening and frightening that federal agencies grant each other secrecy when the issues concern the health, safety, and welfare of hundreds of thousands of American citizens who were in fact poisoned by one of the federal departments protected by the agreement,” Ensminger said.
Last week, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) released a report on the water contamination at Camp Lejeune that was redacted in response to a legally dubious request by the Navy. In a letter sent today, POGO and allies raised concerns about the legal justifications for the redactions and urged HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to ensure the public release of the unredacted ATSDR report to the full extent allowable under the law.
“It was my understanding that the ATSDR was created to protect public health in such incidents as the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. Instead, it would appear that the protection of the Department of the Navy and United States Marine Corps' legal positions and public image are slowly but surely becoming the priority of the agency—not public health,” Ensminger said.
POGO and allies also sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, asking him to explain the Navy's request to keep some information secret, and also to immediately begin to properly implement the Pentagon’s new “public interest balancing test.” In a letter obtained by POGO, the Navy requested ATSDR keep secret certain information, but failed to even mention the new law most relevant to these determinations by the Department of Defense (DoD)—an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that may be used to withhold information only when the public interest does not outweigh the Pentagon’s interests in protecting critical infrastructure information.
Patrice McDermott, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment.org, said of DoD’s request, “Clearly DoD had not learned its lesson about the right of people to know when their health and safety may be at risk. Even more shocking than DoD’s continued refusal to understand how its actions put Marines and their loved ones at risk, is DoD’s decision to ignore Congress’s direct order to weigh the public interest in releasing information. We hope Secretary Panetta and Secretary Sebelius will take action to rectify this situation.”
The letters are signed by organizations with missions that range from advocating for good government to environmental protection to justice for Camp Lejeune victims. Also copied on the letters are new White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, several congressional committees of interest, the authors of the public interest balancing test for the FOIA exemption—Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.)—as well as members of Congress who have championed legislation to provide for some healthcare for the Camp Lejeune victims: Senators Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), and Representatives John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Brad Miller (D-N.C.).
“Failing to release this information sets a dangerous and unacceptable precedent that undermines the public interest,” POGO Director of Public Policy Angela Canterbury said. “Those who have lost loved ones or have suffered cancer and other grave illnesses are still waiting for some justice. It’s time for the Pentagon to do the right thing and ensure the whole truth about Camp Lejeune is told.”