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Apr-29-2009 07:28printcomments

Congressional Investigators Say Toxic Military Base Health Hazards Were Overlooked

Former assurances to Marines over health concerns related to Camp Lejeune are off the table; the feds now say the notion that Marines will remain cancer free, is false.

Military decals
Camp Lejeune's problems see attention, but Marines from toxic El Toro remain unrecognized. These squadron logos in now abandoned buildings, tell the story of the once premier El Toro air base that ranked Southern California among the world's best defended regions. The VMFAT 101 was a training squadron that at one time flew the F-4 Phantom, the Lancers in modern years is an F/A-18 Hornet squadron, MAWTS 1 is a weapons and tactics training squadron, and HMT 301 represents the last years of the base when Marine helicopters were absorbed from nearby Tustin LTA. Photos: Tim King

(IRVINE, Calif.) - It was just less than a year ago when we began investigating and reporting on the contamination of Marine Corp bases in North Carolina and Southern California.

Now there is a new President with new environmental policies, and the historically reluctant flow of data on these environmental disasters appears to be increasing.

We learned Tuesday that in an abrupt about-face, the federal government disavowed a 12-year-old report concluding that adults at Camp Lejeune faced little or no cancer risk over drinking water that was contaminated for three decades.

According to a report from the AP's Rita Beamish, the number of Marines, dependents and civilian workers who were potentially exposed to toxins could exceed one million. Those effected should seek experienced legal experts for more information.

The federal government maintains that the problems with Camp Lejeune's water originated from a dry cleaner that was located adjacent to the base. Now however, it has been disclosed that the toxic contamination also originated from industrial activity at Camp Lejeune. That information according to federal officials.

The revelation that the report from 12 years ago is in part bogus, sets a whole new game into motion.

Robert O'Dowd, another former El Toro Marine who writes for Salem-News.com, notes that the person who wrote the now discredited report is Carol D. Hossom, with the the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry or ASTDR.

"Funny, she's also the one who wrote the report on El Toro suggesting that things there aren't nearly as bad as they are," O'Dowd said. In fact the contamination at El Toro could be much worse.

"We know too much now." Those words from William Cibulas, the director of health assessment for ASTDR.

He told reporters Tuesday, "We can no longer stand behind the accuracy of the information in that document," at a meeting in Atlanta.

A Marine named Jerry Ensminger watched his little girl die from cancer in the 1980's at Camp Lejeune, and that set him on a course to expose the cancer causing toxins present at the base. Years passed between the point when his daughter died, and the information about Perchlorethylene (PCE) and Trichloroethylene (TCE) came to light.

"We are in Day 99 of change, and by God we're starting to see it," he told The AP, referring to the change promised by President Barack Obama. The 1997 report was created during President Clinton's administration.

The group of sick veterans from Lejeune came to be known as the "poisoned patriots". They never accepted the conclusions of the 1997 report. As The AP reported Tuesday, family members of veterans have filed claims for $33.8 billion in damages.

There also is a continuing study underway investigating whether fetuses might have been harmed. Marine wives who lived there during the Vietnam War period waged a battle with the Marine Corps as to whether or not stillborn babies would be allowed grave sites with actual gravestones.

The Marines wanted the mothers to cremate the remains of the deceased newborn infants. There are off base cemeteries with what are described as "row after row" of small graves where the children of Marines were born without the capacity to live.

Expert Testimony

Doctor Phil Leveque who writes for Salem-News.com, points to TCE contamination which is easily passed from adults to their children, as the main problem affecting Marine bases.

Dr. Leveque testified as a Forensic Toxicologist at the first death-related lawsuit involving TCE, in 1974. The dangerous chemical degreaser had in that case, killed a janitor who used it to clean supermarket floors of gum stains. He inhaled it for about six weeks and died of liver failure.

Dr. Leveque explains that the substance was created and marketed by Dow Chemical years before adequate safety testing was required. PCE is very similar to TCE and it is also referred to as Tetrachloroethylene.

"TCE has three chlorine's, and PCE has four. They are slightly different but very similar."

Dr. Leveque was clear in stating that TCE, which was sold and widely distributed throughout the Marine Corps, has probably had a lot more impact healthwise on Marines than PCE. (Marine Death Camp: Camp Lejeune Trichlorethylene - the Culprit - Dr. Phil Leveque Salem-News.com)

He says the PCE/TCE degreasers were initially thought to be useful for knocking people out, like Chloroform.

But Chloroform was found to be toxic, which led to many other similar chemicals being tried for anesthesia including Trichlorethylene and its cousin Perchlorethylene.

"All chlorinated chemicals were found to be too toxic and lethal for any human use," Leveque said.

"Their action was to combine with body fats including brain nerves and other cells, but it was found toxic also to the liver and kidneys and can cause a variety of cancers, which is exactly what has happened to so many Marines and others who spent time around Camp Lejeune, we have learned."

And even though it is scarcely recognized as the primary problem, levels of TCE at Lejeune in recent years are the highest ever measured in a U.S. public water supply, according to an ASTDR scientist.

Yet there continues to be a complete and total breakdown of real progress as long as the Marine Corps, EPA, ASTDR and other agencies deny that TCE is the primary problem. TCE, still sold and widely used by people today, can only properly be used when exercising extreme caution.

Across the Land

The elephant hiding in the grass is the El Toro Marine air station in Southern California; my old base where I was stationed as a Marine on the flightline in the 1980's, in what turns out to be the base's most contaminated corner; in the MWSG-37 area, now known as Ground Zero at El Toro.

The base, in what is now Irvine, had been closed down and was being prepped and groomed for a high dollar housing community and park.

Just less than a year ago, the Orange County press was silently allowing a travesty to take place, but today they cover it for the important subject it is.

El Toro is extremely polluted, and no government officials are taking that one on. That may be because it is so completely foul and toxic that it can never be repaired, at least not in our lifetimes.

It wasn't even fit for a military air base, but the closure of El Toro in the late 90's may have been almost incidental, many believe. There was a much bigger goal than closing a base to save the government money during the Base realignment and Closure Process, (BRAC). One positive thing is that as a result of the closure, many Marines have been able to avoid the TCE laden air station.

Plenty of folks wanted El Toro closed. The Irvine Company has its hands in everything Orange County; the city of Irvine wanted the tax revenue and Lennar Homes was anxious to build the new mansions on the soiled ground. We can't forget that the Great Park Corporation wanted to build a playland where little kids would play on the infested ground.

"The only answer for El Toro is to put a fence around it ten feet high and leave it alone for a few hundred years," Dr. Leveque said in reference to the base's future.

A retired osteopathic physician, Dr. Leveque is also a Professor of Pharmacology and a Forensic Toxicologist with more than 400 court appearances to his credit. Prior to that, he served in WWII. He may know more about TCE contamination than any other expert alive today. He says what the developers wanted to do with the old base, is unconscionable and unscrupulous at best.

Yet less than one year ago, in July 2008, the Irvine Mayor and City Council were 110% behind all of the development on the polluted, dangerous ground. I attended an Irvine City Council meeting in July and had the opportunity to hear it in person. I interviewed the city's public information officer Louie Gonzales, and he said he knew nothing about the TCE. (see: Sick Marines and Contaminated Water: Questions Surround El Toro Marine Air Base (VIDEO REPORT) - Investigative Series with Tim King Salem-News.com)

While the news about the fed's second thoughts on the ASTDR report regarding Camp Lejeune are encouraging, it is only a small step for the overall problem affecting Marine bases.

The ASTDR has been under the Congressional microscope in recent weeks; the hot seat might be even more appropriate. Congressional investigators say that ASTDR obscured, or overlooked potential health hazards at toxic sites. ASTDR Director Howard Frumkin, told Congress he was working to improve on any shortcomings.

Robert O'Dowd suggests that Tueday's release is a direct development of those recent Congressional Hearings.

Benzene

The main point that led to the 12-year old document on Lejeune being omitted, is that the cancer-causing chemical benzene was found in a military base well in 1984, but researchers failed to mention the high benzene levels; it took Jerry Ensminger to bring it to their attention.

Cibulas deflected part of the blame back on the Marine Corps, citing a 2007 Associated Press investigation of the water contamination. That report found that the study underestimated the extent of the base's contamination because the Marines provided inadequate information.

That was two years ago, and even used as an excuse, the question remains, "Why didn't ASTDR didn't take action, if they knew?"

It isn't a small matter for Marines. The 1997 document about Lejeune states unequivocally that "adults faced no increased cancer risk from the water," The AP reported. The report also said cancer was not likely, but that more study was needed.

Sorry guys, the government's firm findings went soft.

The VA according to Cibulas, misinterpreted the information as essentially saying: 'Under no conditions would people who drank the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune be expected to suffer any adverse health effects, be they cancerous or non-cancerous.'

He insinuates that his agency was concerned, but that too fails to stand up. It certainly seems like he could have clarified if bad information was coming out and he was connected to it. I'd say something to somebody.

Federal agencies can be quick to shift the blame back and forth. I wonder what their reasons will eventually be for ignoring the plight of El Toro Marines, many of whom have withered and died, watched children die, as they battled illnesses that in all likelihood, are a result of TCE contact.

TCE entered the water tables at El Toro for many years because Marines used it to clean the grease from jet fighters and then they would just dump it into the gutters and floor drains. They weren't trained to do otherwise in the earlier years, and in the later years of the base it was done more quietly. I have statements from a whole bunch of former aviation Marines who talk about it at length.

It isn't enough that we who were Marines at El Toro are totally ignored and disqualified from any type of legal action based on the Ferres Doctrine, which blocks former servicemembers from suing the government; it seems even more infuriating that they were going to use the same land to plant new houses without advising the buyers of what they were getting themselves into, and lead a whole new group into the trap we were once in.

But the times are changing. Now Lennar is reportedly under investigation as part of a Federal RICO case for Racketeering. It seems there might be some justice in the world for this story. (Groups Prepare Civil RICO Case Against Lennar Corporation for Civil Racketeering - Salem-News.com)

If you didn't see it, here is the story directly from ASTDR on the disqualified report from 1997: ATSDR Withdraws Scientifically Flawed Public Health Document.

I just hope that the increasing awareness about TCE and PCE contamination on Marine bases continues to find its way into the minds of people who are potentially affected. We have generated dozens of articles on this complex problem that silently affects so many, and we will keep going as long as we have the breath to continue.

To see the other articles, click the Marine Corps tag at the bottom of the story and you will find page after page of them, along with some reports on Marines fighting the war in Iraq that I shot last summer.

The TCE at El Toro has actually moved miles in the underground water tables and has been traced by Navy contractors in aquifers directly below Irvine City Hall. We broke the story in February that the TCE had moved twice as far into Orange County than officials ever revealed. (see: TCE-Related Toxic Waste in Irvine Much Worse Than Previously Revealed - Tim King Salem-News.com)

I don't mean to be overly dramatic, but as the recipient of hundreds of emails from Marines about this problem, I don't think we have a lot of time to wait. People who served their country deserve to be notified about possible harmful effects to their health. Those of you in Washington who read my articles regularly know that you need to take action on this one. The Marines have fierce loyalty and that should be given back.


Tim King is a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. In addition to his role as a war correspondent, this Los Angeles native serves as Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor.
Tim spent the winter of 2006/07 covering the war in Afghanistan, and he was in Iraq over the summer of 2008, reporting from the war while embedded with both the U.S. Army and the Marines. Tim holds numerous awards for reporting, photography, writing and editing, including the Oregon AP Award for Spot News Photographer of the Year (2004), the first place Electronic Media Award in Spot News, Las Vegas, (1998), Oregon AP Cooperation Award (1991); and several other awards including the 2005 Red Cross Good Neighborhood Award for reporting. Serving the community in very real terms, Salem-News.com is the nation's only truly independent high traffic news Website, affiliated with Google News and several other major search engines and news aggregators.
You can send Tim an email at this address: newsroom@salem-news.com




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Randy Radford September 23, 2010 5:56 am (Pacific time)

I recently learned that TCE was stored, and in the soil at Fort Dix. New Jersey. In the article I read, they listed nine sites...several of which I know I guarded, crawled in the soil...drank the water, and mysteriously became ill...vomited etc...was treated... This was late 1970 early 1971. ...recently diagnosed with prostate cancer... Not sure, but if there is a nexus...I would at least like to explore... Can anyone advise--radfordr@verizon.net


Terry May 4, 2009 2:21 pm (Pacific time)

Please check out www.watersurvivors.com


Henry Ruark April 29, 2009 7:54 am (Pacific time)

To all: Be aware that investigative reporting, as in this series by Tim, is among the most powerful weapons to force far overdue action by government. It takes tremendous time, costs scads of dollars, puts reporter/daily at risk --and thus deserves full, strong support from all readers since it is heart-and-soul of the newspaper role to inform the citizens for the continuing help of our own democracy.


Robert O'Dowd April 29, 2009 6:27 am (Pacific time)

Too many Lejeune Marines have died from toxic exposure leaving their families without the benefit of VA compensation. Bad news never gets better over time. At least, the government is finally coming clean on Lejeune. Too bad the Marine Corps that we both served in didn't have the courage to admit the depth of the contamination in 1997. The Corps has an outstanding military record in battle. Marines do not leave their wounded or dead, even at the risk of their own lives. Something went badly wrong at Lejeune, both with ATSDR and the Marine Corps leadership.

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©2017 Salem-News.com. All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Salem-News.com.


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