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Marine vet launches petition to provide health care for Camp Lejeune victims
Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E reporter
Published: Thursday, May 31, 2012
A retired Marine has launched a citizen petition aimed at urging Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide health care for thousands of service members and their families who have fallen ill as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals in the drinking water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
The petition, from retired Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, has already garnered more than 110,000 signatures.
Experts estimate that several hundred thousand people were exposed to water contaminated with toxic chemicals like trichloroethylene (TCE), which is carcinogenic, from 1957 to 1987. Testing has also revealed that the water contained vinyl chloride and benzene, which are also carcinogens, at levels potentially more than 200 times U.S. EPA's standards.
Ensminger, who lost his 9-year-old daughter to childhood leukemia, said the government has an obligation to provide health care for these veterans but, so far, has only tried to cover up the controversy.
"How more ironic could any situation ever get?" Ensminger asked E&E Daily. "We were all unwittingly poisoned by a handful of our own leaders/officials, and when knowledge of the contamination started to become public, that very same handful of leaders and officials lied and obfuscated the facts to mask their negligence."
Several disease clusters have surfaced among Camp Lejeune veterans. Last year, 40 Marine veterans who have been diagnosed with breast cancer urged Congress and the Obama administration to address the issue. There have been 73 cases of breast cancer in men from Camp Lejeune -- the biggest cluster of the disease in men ever reported (E&ENews PM, Dec. 14, 2011).
There have also been anecdotal reports of elevated rates of birth defects, miscarriages and leukemias from families who spent time at the base.
Ensminger's petition is aimed at both the Veterans Affairs Department and the chairman of the House and Senate veterans' affairs committees. He is asking Congress to take up legislation from three North Carolina lawmakers -- Rep. Brad Miller (D) (H.R. 1742) and Sens. Richard Burr (R) and Kay Hagan (D) (S. 277) -- that would provide medical care.
The retired sergeant also highlighted comments from Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki last month that providing health care to Camp Lejeune veterans is "premature," which Ensminger called "absolute hogwash."
Burr, Hagan and Miller welcomed Ensminger's petition.
"Wide participation in this effort underscores the dire need for the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and the administration to fulfill their responsibility to care for the victims of water contamination at Camp Lejeune, and I am glad that this petition is drawing attention to this tragedy," Burr said in an email.
The Senate bill has passed out of that chamber's Veterans' Affairs Committee and is waiting for a vote on the floor.
"It is critical," Hagan said, "that Congress, the Department of the Navy, the VA, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry continue to work together to ensure that the public obtains an accurate historical portrayal of the events that led up to the water contamination, as well as the response in dealing with the issue."
The House Veterans' Affairs Committee, however, has yet to take up Miller's bill because it has not found a way to offset the cost of the new coverage -- a prerequisite under Republican House rules.
In an interview, Miller expressed his disappointment and frustration.
"Everyone is making the right noises about wanting to do the right thing, but no one seems to want to come up with the money to do it," Miller said. "The sense that this is something justice requires doesn't seem to move people."
Ensminger was even more direct, accusing the leaders of the committee of using veterans for political gain, but neglecting them when they need help.
"Now," he said, "we have members of our Congress who are doing nothing more than playing political gamesmanship with the lives of the very veterans they all so publicly claim to support!"
Miller added that he hopes Ensminger will keep up his efforts, which were documented in the documentary "Semper Fi: Always Faithful."
"If it was not for the activism of Jerry Ensminger and a few others, we would not even know about the contamination," he said. "I welcome their continued activism, and if they are making some people uncomfortable, that's OK with me."