Marine base's ex-residents, many ill, only now learning of toxic water

WASHINGTON — Paul Akers was in his oncologist's office last summer when his adult daughter handed him a magazine.

He saw a half-page ad from the Marine Corps, alerting former residents of Camp Lejeune, N.C., that if they lived on the base between 1957 and 1987, they might have been exposed to contaminated water.

Akers thought about his mother, the wife of a Marine, who died in 1960.

He remembered his little sister, whom he called Penny. She died of cancer in June at 61. She'd been diagnosed last spring, when she went in to be tested as a bone marrow match for her ailing brother. She was dead within a month.

Akers thought, too, of his own struggle, undergoing chemotherapy for non-Hodgkins' lymphoma.

"You can see why I'm angry at the military," Akers told McClatchy.

Akers, 64, lived on base for years as a young child, building forts among the pine trees and splashing in a plastic kiddie pool with his little sister, cooling off in the sweltering Carolina summers.

The water, it turned out, was poisonous.

Although that was discovered a quarter-century ago, neither Akers nor his sister had known that residents of Camp Lejeune drank contaminated well water for decades. The Marines have registered thousands of people across the country who say they've been plagued by illnesses related to the toxic water, but the Department of the Navy, which includes the Marine Corps, still refuses to pay for a $1.6 million study into the deaths of former residents of Camp Lejeune.

"We ate food cooked in the water. We drank the water. We bathed in the water," said Akers, now a primary care doctor in Columbia, S.C. "Everything we did, we did in the water."

Some estimates are that over a 30-year period, as many as 1 million people were exposed to well water that contained trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), benzene and vinyl chloride. The chemicals were dumped into storm drains, leaked from fuel tanks or buried in pits across the base. They seeped through the groundwater and into the wells that fed the base areas of Hadnot Point and Tarawa Terrace.

A 2007 law required the Marine Corps to warn former residents of the potential danger, but many, such as Akers, say they've never been contacted.

Meanwhile, members of Congress have grown increasingly impatient with the Navy Department's refusal to pay for a mortality study. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., has blocked two Navy presidential appointees and vowed to stop every nominee until the department ends its "continued intransigence."

The mortality study is to be done by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that was created to assess the health hazards from environmental Superfund sites.

The study is required by law under Title 42, but Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told Burr last month that because previous research released last summer found no link to the toxic water, the mortality study is unnecessary.

Burr also is pushing legislation that would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide health care to family members with illnesses that could be linked to toxins in the Lejeune water.

It's unclear how many people the toxic water may have sickened.

Still, 133,000 former Marines, family members and civilian employees have registered with the Marine Corps as potential victims of the contamination. After North Carolina, the states with the most registrants are Florida and California.

"I want the government to be responsible. I think the term is 'man up,'" Akers said. "(We) got poisoned while they turned their back and looked the other way."

When news of the contamination in water wells on the base was first reported in a base newspaper and then in The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., 25 years ago, officials said the main contaminants were volatile organic solvents, which they blamed, in part, on a nearby dry cleaner.

A year ago, however, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry learned that the water had been contaminated in part with benzene, a component in fuel and a carcinogen.

The finding was so significant that the agency retracted decade-old research because it didn't include the new poison.

Now, newly revealed documents reviewed by McClatchy indicate that the base's fuel storage farm may have had much greater significance than previously known.

In fact, 800,000 gallons of fuel were thought to have been spilled over the years from the fuel farm, close to the main well that serves Hadnot Point, the location of the base's enlisted barracks, some officers' quarters and the base hospital, where Paul Akers' mother volunteered for years.

In a November 1996 meeting among federal, state and base environmental officials, a contractor estimated that 500,000 gallons of the fuel had been recovered, according to a memo documenting the meeting.

"The other 300,000 gallons? I know what happened to it," said Mike Partain of Tallahassee, Fla., who lived at Camp Lejeune as an infant. "We drank it."

Three years ago, Partain was diagnosed with male breast cancer at age 39.

Since then, he's found dozens of other male breast cancer patients across the country — 55 in all — with connections to Camp Lejeune. Some of the men have died.

Male breast cancer is so rare — fewer than 2,000 men are diagnosed each year — that Partain's findings have raised questions among some epidemiologists.

The Marine Corps says that science has yet to show a link between Camp Lejeune's water and families' illnesses. A report by the National Research Council released last summer found no definitive cause.

Burr and Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., along with numerous scientists, question those results.

Documents reviewed by McClatchy indicate that there were repeated warnings about the poisonous water before the wells were shut down in late 1984.

Capt. Brian Block, a Marine spokesman, said officials at Lejeune spent several years testing the water to find the source of the contamination before tracing it to the affected wells — which were then immediately shut down.

Akers, the doctor who lost his sister in June, said he's still angry at the Marines.

It was too late for his mother, Akers said. However, had he and his sister known a decade ago that they drank and bathed in toxic water and were at risk, they would have paid attention.

"There are things that could be done if you know about it," Akers said.


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