Poisoned patriots: North Carolina's toxic marine base

In a recent debate on North Carolina Public Radio, N.C. Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) insisted that there are "no downsides" to her plan of expanding military bases and defense industries in the state. I disagreed, citing the Institute's recent report North Carolina at War, which documents the social, economic and other costs of being "the most military-friendly state in the nation."

Today, the Associated Press has a powerful story on one of the big "downsides" to banking on the military as an economic engine for the state: toxic pollution. Military bases are among the most environmentally destructive industries, as families living near North Carolina's marine base discovered:

Marine families who lived at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina over three decades drank water contaminated with toxins as much as 40 times over today's safety standard, federal health investigators said yesterday.

The government disclosed results from a new scientific study on the same day that some families testified before a congressional panel about cancers and other illnesses they attribute to drinking tainted tap water at the sprawling training and deployment base.

The House Energy and Commerce panel, which held the hearing, described the sickened Marines as "poisoned patriots."

At least 850 former residents of the base have filed administrative claims, seeking nearly $4 billion, for exposure to the industrial solvents TCE and PCE, which contaminated Camp Lejeune's drinking wells before 1987. TCE, or trichloroethylene, is a degreasing solvent, and PCE, or tetrachloroethylene, is a dry-cleaning agent. The government describes them as probable carcinogens .

"My wife and I now have new full-time careers just staying alive and figuring out how to pay for it all," former Navy Dr. Michael Gros of Spring, Texas, said.

The scope of the poisoning is breathtaking, exacerbated by the federal government's failure to police the base:

The US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said its new modeling and analysis of Camp Lejeune's Tarawa Terrace drinking water system from 1957 to 1987 found levels of PCE as high as 200 parts per billion, compared with the 5 parts per billion that federal regulators in 1992 would set as the maximum allowable level. [...]

The health agency estimated 75,000 people lived in the affected base neighborhood during those three decades.

And the cost has come in human lives:

Jerry Ensminger of White Lake, N.C., a Marine for 24 years, lost his 9-year-old daughter to leukemia. In heart-rending testimony, he described comforting her during agonizing cancer treatments. He said that toward the end of her life, she endured taunts from classmates teasing her about her appearance after chemotherapy.

"It is time for the United States Marine Corps to live up to their motto 'Semper Fidelis,' " or always faithful, Ensminger said.