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Water Contamination At Marine Base Could Be To Blame For Cancer Deaths

Senator Calls For Federal Investigation

Feb 11, 2004 |

Camp Lejeune is a sprawling Marine Corps base in North Carolina where hundreds of thousands of Marines have trained and live.

Now there's a black cloud hanging over it.

A growing group of Marines who lived there in the '60s, '70s and '80s, including some from the Susquehanna Valley, said their family's health has been severely compromised by water contamination on the base at that time.

There is growing pressure on the Marine Corps about water contamination.

Tuesday, Sen. Jim Jeffords, of Vermont, called for an expansion of the federal investigation and asked that all Marines and their families who lived in the affected areas be notified about the contamination and potential health effects.

Father Looks For Answers

A Lebanon County native who lost his young daughter to leukemia believes it was caused by bad water at the base.

Jerry Ensminger still vividly remembers his young daughter's endless energy, but everything changed when she was just 7 years old. After Janey couldn't shake a bad case of strep throat, further tests revealed the awful truth.

Ensminger will never forget that conversation with the doctor.

"He said, 'We suspect that your daughter has leukemia.' I went to my knees in the hallway, my forehead went down on the deck and I couldn't move," Ensminger said.

Janey died 27 months after the diagnosis in 1985. She was 9 years old.

"When the shock wore off, I started questioning. Why? Why? I checked my family tree. I checked her mother's family tree. We found no other children on either side of our families that ever had leukemia. And I was just at a loss," Ensminger said.

For the next decade, Ensminger looked for an answer in his daughter's death.

After more than 24 years in the Marine Corps, he retired in 1994. Ensminger grew up in Lebanon County, but after his retirement he chose to live in North Carolina near Camp Lejeune.

Study Reveals Water Contamination

In 1997, Ensminger was getting ready to eat dinner and saw a local news report that changed his life. A new study revealed water contamination at Camp Lejeune, where Ensminger and his wife lived when Janey was conceived.

"I dropped my plate. I finally had a glimmer of hope that I was going to get an answer to a question that had nagged me for over 14 years," Ensminger said.

Ensminger took it as his mission to find out everything he could about the contamination. He joined a group called Water Survivors that started to uncover documents that indicate the Marine Corps knew about the contamination years before it shut down the wells at Camp Lejeune.

In a memo from a military engineer assigned to test the water, his handwritten comment said, "water highly contaminated with chlorinated hydrocarbons (solvents)!"

The memo is dated March 1981. The wells he was referring to were not shut down until the beginning of 1985, according to News 8.

Chemicals Thought To Cause Cancer

Two chemicals are drawing the most attention.

Trichlorethylene is a metal degreaser that's believed to be a cancer agent and can also impair fetal development and damage kidneys and the liver.

Tetracholoethylene, which researchers believe leaked into the wells from a near-by dry cleaner, is also believed to cause cancer.

Tests indicate the levels of these two chemicals in Camp Lejeune's water were hundreds of times higher than what's considered safe, and a federal report released last year showed that children conceived or born at Camp Lejeune before 1985 were more than twice as likely to suffer from cancer or birth defects.

Marine Corps Releases Little Information

Ensminger said the Marine Corps has not been very forthcoming in the investigation.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, studies Superfund sites like Camp Lejeune and has been investigating the contamination.

In a memo from the ATSDR, a researcher indicated that "we have sent Camp Lejeune several requests for information and, in most cases, the responses were inadequate and no supporting documentation was forwarded."

Ensminger believes the Marines are doing everything they can to delay the investigation.

"It's my belief and the belief of a lot of other people that are involved in this with me that they have done this to minimize their culpability," Ensminger said.

Ensminger said he thinks it is a cover-up.

Estimates vary on how many Marines and their families may have been exposed, anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000. The higher estimates would make Camp Lejeune one of the largest contaminated water cases in American history.

"You're talking about a lot of money. A lot of people," Ensminger said.

So far, the military has notified people who were born at Camp Lejeune from 1968 to 1985 about the contamination, but Ensminger said that's not enough.

For instance, Janey was conceived there, but he transferred before she was born.

"I'd have never known about it. They'd have never contacted me," Ensminger said. "Those people are probably still wondering why. A lot of mothers blame themselves. What did I do wrong while I was pregnant to cause this? It wasn't anything they did. It was what they were exposed to."

Janey is buried at the Fort Indiantown Gap National Cemetery in Lebanon County.

Her father vows to carry on the fight for the truth about what he believes caused her death.

"The Marine Corps has a motto and it's Semper Fidelis. It's Latin. It means "always faithful." Well, the Marine Corps has not lived up to that motto. Not to the people that were exposed to this stuff," Ensminger said. "I'll live up to that motto. That's my mission and the mission of a lot of other people I'm involved with, is to get the word out to these people."

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