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Camp Lejeune's environmental officials did not understand and did not respond as quickly as they should have when contaminated drinking water was discovered in 1980 at the North Carolina military base, a panel has decided.
Not until five years after the first signs of contamination were found did the base shut down 10 wells. In the meantime, tens of thousands of base residents drank the water, which contained volatile organic chemicals, and some have since blamed it for illnesses and even deaths.
Formed in March by Gen. Michael W. Hagee, commandant of the Marine Corps, the panel issued its findings Wednesday.
It did not find evidence of a cover-up by the Marines, something that former base residents have charged.
The base's response was sluggish, the report said, and was caused by "a convergence of multiple factors" at the base and government regulations that were rapidly changing in that era.
Jeff Byron, a Cincinnati resident who lived at Tarawa Terrace on base in the early 1980s was not pleased with the panel's findings.
The former Marine air traffic controller, who has two daughters with numerous health problems from rashes to heart defects that he attributes to the contaminated water, questioned the panel's impartiality.
"This is the commandant's panel. They're hand-picked people, not independent," Byron said. "I'm sure they're going to write (the report) exactly the way the Department of Defense wants to hear it."
Members included the panel chairman, Ronald C. Packard, a former congressman from California; a retired Marine Corps general; a former U.S. Navy assistant secretary; and two toxicology experts.
Even if the report is correct, that doesn't mean no one's at fault, Byron said.
"They said there's reasons for why it happened lack of manpower, lack of money. But that's no excuse for what's happened to our family members," Byron said.
Camp Lejeune's water met the standards of the time, the panel said.
The base's approach of not addressing contaminants until regulations required action also was typical of the U.S. water industry at the time.
Although volatile organic chemicals were a concern nationally in the early 1980s, Camp Lejeune did not anticipate or independently evaluate the health risks of the chemicals before they were regulated in drinking water, the panel found.
Several things hindered the base's environmental division from understanding the significance of the first signs of pollution, Packard said in a news release.
The absence of regulations, a lack of complaints about water quality, sampling errors and inconsistent sampling results delayed a rapid response by the base, he said.
Also, the environmental division was inadequately funded, staffed and trained.
The panel also faulted a regional naval unit responsible for providing Camp Lejeune with technical expertise and advice on water quality. It received four laboratory reports in 1980 and 1981 alerting it to the contaminant and recommending further study.
There was no evidence of any follow-up actions to the reports. The panel said that communications among the base's water system operators, its Preventive Medicine department, its Environmental Division, and a Navy department responsible for providing Camp Lejeune with technical expertise and advice on water quality issues were inadequate.
The panel made three recommendations:
The Marine Corps should upgrade environmental and risk communications training for base leadership and staffs to assure that any future environmental issues are handled promptly.
The Marine Corps should make the information collected by the panel available to the public.
A study under way on possible health effects from exposure to contaminated drinking water at the base should be speeded up.
Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vermont, the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said he was deeply concerned by the panel's findings.
"The panel report confirms that the Marine Corps knew of the contamination for four years before closing the drinking water wells," Jeffords said in a statement. "Marines and their families deserve much better. The Marine Corps should now do the right thing by notifying and providing appropriate assistance to people who were affected."