Ill veterans and those whose family members died from diseases related to contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune are outraged by recent comments from Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in which he discounted a link between chronic disease and service at the North Carolina Marine Corps base from the mid-1950s to 1980s.
At a forum in Cleveland on Sept. 14, Mabus responded to a question from an audience member regarding the safety of the current base water supply.
Mabus assured the man that the water has been safe to consume for nearly 30 years and blamed the original problem on an off-base dry cleaner illegally dumping solvents near two military housing areas.
He also said that while there have been "allegations that there is a higher incidence of illness with people who had gone through as Marines," studies conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry "can find no correlation."
The remarks have upset former troops who fought the Marine Corps and Defense Department to release all documents related to the problem and lobbied for recognition of their illnesses or losses.
According to four reports produced by the ASTDR, the population, including Marines and civilian employees, do appear to have higher rates of diseases related to exposure to compounds found in the water, including volatile organic compounds, benzene and vinyl chloride.
The documentation also notes that the problem was related to industrial dumping and leaking storage tanks in addition to the illegal solvent dumping by ABC One-Hour Cleaner.
Mike Partain, who was born at the Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune in 1968 and diagnosed as an adult with breast cancer, called Mabus' comments "insulting" and said they show the secretary is out of touch with the problem.
"There have been several congressional hearings about this issue. Congress passed a law to help affected veterans. VA provides medical care for these problems," Partain said. "The time for deflecting and whitewashing is over. The science is in."
More than 750,000 people, including Marines, family members and civilian employees, may have been exposed to toxic chemicals, including perchloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene, benzene and vinyl chloride during periods from 1953 to 1987.
The contamination involved two water treatment facilities that served seven housing areas, including the base hospital and barracks.
The agency notes that study limitations prevent it from concluding that the water directly caused the illnesses, but the research "makes an important contribution to the body of evidence about harm caused by these chemicals."
Retired Marine Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger's 9-year-old daughter died of leukemia in 1987. Ensminger, a member of the Camp Lejeune Community Assistance Panel — a board that meets to discuss developments on the issue — said Mabus' statements are "appalling" and not "even close to the truth."
"It's the worst drinking water contamination incident in the history of our country, not only the magnitude of the contamination but the sheer volume of people affected," Ensminger said.
After the event, a Mabus spokesman described the secretary's response as a brief summary of the issue "in the interest of time" and said the secretary reiterated the Navy Department's commitment to contacting all who served at Camp Lejeune during the affected period.
"Secretary Mabus is aware of the studies and congressional legislation concerning the Camp Lejeune contamination issue," Navy Capt. Patrick McNally said. "He has traveled to Camp Lejeune on several occasions since becoming secretary and has expressed his concern for the well-being of anyone who has suffered any adverse health effects."
Still, Mabus' comments stung a group of troops who resent that the Marine Corps did not reveal the scope of the problem when it was first uncovered.
"I'd like an apology," Camp Lejeune family member Lou Freshwater said. "My family dealt with the deaths of two babies from neural tube defects and my mother lost her own life due to having two types of leukemia."
On Sept. 18, ASTDR published a new report on the incidence of male breast cancer among Camp Lejeune veterans that suggests an association between that condition and exposure to several chemicals found at Camp Lejeune.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.