WASHINGTON – Angered by what they consider the military’s reticence to reveal all it knows about decades of water contamination on North Carolina Marine base Camp Lejeune, lawmakers want to force the Marine Corps and the Navy to produce an inventory of all the documentation scientists need to understand the contamination.
Senators and members of the House of Representatives have inserted language into the 2011 defense authorization bill that would require Defense Secretary Robert Gates to certify that the military has done so.
The House version of the bill gives the Defense Department 180 days to act; the Senate version offers 90 days.
For the past year, federal scientists have complained that the Marine Corps and its parent agency, the Department of the Navy, haven’t been fully open about the reams of documentation the military holds on the tainted water.
“The military stalled for three decades,” said Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “To carry out their study, (scientists) have got to have all relevant documents, and the Navy has been less than helpful at providing those.”
The dispute among Congress, the military and scientists at an obscure federal agency in Atlanta opens a window into how a behind-the-scenes battle among bureaucrats can have lasting effects on thousands of people nationwide.
Accurate science on the poisons’ effects could prove crucial in lawsuits against the U.S. government by Marines’ family members, and to veterans who are trying to receive health benefits related to their service at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
A year ago, a new discovery about benzene – a key component of gasoline – forced the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to toss out a 10-year-old study about the water’s impact on health.
The agency, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is responsible for studying the health effects of major contamination sites around the country.
This winter, McClatchy Newspapers reported on documents that show that up to 800,000 gallons of fuel spilled into aquifers that fed barracks, officers’ quarters and the base’s hospital, far more than previously had been estimated.
“Every study would have changed dramatically if they’d known what the concentrations were, because the concentration of benzene would’ve been higher,” said Burr, who also sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In March, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry wrote the military questioning whether the Pentagon had turned over everything it promised.
The Navy responded that it doesn’t have the expertise to know exactly what papers the scientists want. Military officers also said they had been completely open with the scientists.
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., co-sponsor of the Senate language, argued that the scientists shouldn’t have to go hunting for what they need.