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A book-length investigation into the decades-long water contamination aboard Camp Lejeune that may have sickened thousands of Marines and their family members will hit shelves early next year.
Mike Magner, a managing editor for the widely read Capitol Hill publication National Journal, takes on the topic in “A Trust Betrayed: The Untold Story of Camp Lejeune and the Poisoning of Generations of Marines and Their Families,” due out from the Merloyd Lawrence imprint of the Perseus Books Group in March 2014. At more than 300 pages, the book richly details the history of the three-decade contamination incident and its aftermath, beginning in 1941, when the North Carolina base was opened.
Between the 1950s and 1980s, improper disposal practices on and off base led to large amounts of the chemical degreasers TCE and PCE seeping into the groundwater in residential areas aboard Camp Lejeune. Leaks from a fuel farm in the residential area of Hadnot Point led to the presence of benzene, a carcinogen, in base drinking water. Experts estimate that up to 1 million people may have been exposed to the tainted water, which has been linked to a list of serious diseases and cancers as well as a large and growing cluster of men diagnosed with breast cancer.
Magner previously documented the environmental and health violations of oil company BP in his 2011 exposé “Poisoned Legacy: The Human Cost of BP’s Rise To Power.” He said he began covering the Camp Lejeune contamination saga in 2004, before many reporters were aware of the base’s contaminated history and its ongoing implications.
His first source was Tom Townsend, a retired Marine major from Idaho who started investigating a connection between the death of his young son in 1967 and the time he and his wife spent on base while she was pregnant.
“He went on a rampage where he was filing Freedom of Information Act requests,” Magner recalled. “He was one of the first to really stir things up. At some point, he made a comment to a newspaper out West and said, ‘This is going to be bigger than the tobacco settlement.’ ”
Magner’s book covers the slow process by which documents uncovering the extent of the water contamination became public, the congressional investigations prompted by the efforts of Lejeune veterans, and the series of studies eventually taken on by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to complete water modeling, study infant mortality rates, and complete health surveys with those who lived on base during the period of tainted water. Though he talked to many veterans affected by the Lejeune contamination, he had difficulty capturing the Marine Corps side of the story, he said.
“They have been very uncooperative. I tried for two months this spring to get an interview with the commandant,” Magner said. “I offered to go anywhere, at any time, if he would talk with me for 20 minutes. I got a comment that his schedule was booked and he had no time. That’s the way they’ve been all along.”
Magner said he hopes his book provides more publicity for former Lejeune residents sickened by the water, many of whom continue to seek restitution in lawsuits against the federal government
“If the government is forced to pay billions of dollars to people, that will get some attention,” he said. “I would love it if Hollywood picks it up.”