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WILMINGTON, N.C. — Government data from the 1990s that failed to find a link between polluted water and child illnesses at Camp Lejeune will be reanalyzed after the Navy agreed to pay for the new study.
The outcome could affect claims by former residents of the Marine Corps base seeking damages over birth defects and child cancers they blame on exposure to contaminated water.
A letter obtained by The Associated Press shows the Navy will spend almost $2 million for another look at a 1998 study that investigated cancer and birth defects in babies born to women who were pregnant at Camp Lejeune before contaminated wells were shut down.
The service is also funding a related study of how underground water flowed at the base and how toxins would have been introduced and spread, to show the extent of the contamination, according to the Nov. 24 letter from the Department of the Navy to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the U.S. health agency conducting the study.
Water supplied to Camp Lejeune's main family housing areas was contaminated by dry cleaning solvents and other sources from the 1950s to the 1980s. Health officials believe as many as 1 million people may have been exposed to the toxins trichloroethylene or perchloroethylene before the wells were closed 22 years ago.
But the 1998 study was inconclusive and critics argue that the data must be re-evaluated once the water models are complete.
Dagny E. P. Olivares, a health communications specialist for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said the agency learned about new exposures during another water-modeling study.
"The previous analysis considered the drinking water supplied in Holcomb Boulevard uncontaminated, even though the area had originally been supplied contaminated water from Hadnot Point," Olivares said.
The Navy's decision to fund the studies comes in the wake of a strongly worded letter by Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., who joined with Reps. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., and John Dingell, D-Mich., in urging Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to continue funding the health studies. In the October letter, the congressman chastised the Navy for dragging its feet and said the delays are unjustified.
"It would be great if the Navy did the right thing for the right reason, but fortunately the law requires any polluter, including the Navy, to pay for the studies necessary to find out just how much harm they've done to innocent people," Miller told The Associated Press. "The law doesn't make victims of toxic exposure beg and plead a polluter for justice, the law gives them rights."
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said a "piecemeal" approach to funding the studies will increased the workload and delay completion of the studies.
Navy spokesman Whit DeLoach said the funding was never denied and said the Navy will provide the money as soon as the service's budget is approved by Congress.
"The Department of the Navy is committed to working with Congress and scientific bodies, such as ATSDR and the National Research Council, in order to find the best way forward to get our Marines, Sailors, family members and civilian employees the answers they deserve," Deloach said.
North Carolina's congressional delegation has been active on behalf of the health claims of former Camp Lejeune residents. The Senate passed legislation backed by Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Kay Hagan, D-N.C., preventing the military from dismissing claims related to water contamination pending completion of the two studies. In July, Burr proposed a bill that would grant Department of Veterans Affairs health care to all with links to the contaminated water. Burr said Tuesday the when he met with the Secretary of Navy in September he emphasized the need to fund the studies.
"Camp Lejeune veterans and their families expect, and more importantly deserve, nothing less," Burr said.
Capt. Brian Block, a Marine Corps spokesman, said the Marine Corps supports the Navy's decision to fund "those scientific efforts that offer a reasonable chance of providing accurate information" about exposure to contaminated water and adverse health effects.
"Our goal has always been to use the best science to get accurate information in a timely manner," Block said in a statement.
Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine master sergeant who lived at the base and lost his 9-year-old daughter to leukemia, applauded the Navy's decision to finally fund the studies, but blasted them for dragging their feet on providing the money.
"Why is the entity who was responsible for most of the contamination at Camp Lejeune being allowed to dictate to the ATSDR and Congress which human health effect studies they will and will not fund?" Ensminger said. "This is akin to the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse."