Department of Defending Itself

Back in April, a Government Accountability Office report explained how the White House Office of Management and Budget was holding up EPA’s IRIS (Integrated Risk Information System) assessments. OMB had started requiring an “interagency review” process allowing agencies that might be affected by the IRIS assessments to provide comments on the documents – and as result, some of these outside agencies can effectively block completion of IRIS assessments, which inform federal environmental standards and many environmental protection programs at the local, state, and even international level.

The GAO explained that this interagency review process came about because the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and NASA were upset about how EPA was addressing “controversial” chemicals such as perchlorate, napthalene, and trichlorethylene (TCE). DOD, DOE, and NASA view these hazardous substances as “integral to their missions.” EPA IRIS assessments of them could lead to regulatory actions that will require lots of protection and cleanup spending by the responsible agencies.

Last week, the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight held its second hearing on the IRIS process. One witness was particularly vocal about DOD’s foot-dragging on TCE.

Jerry Ensminger served as a Marine for 24 years, and in the 1970s he was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. From 1957 until 1987, Camp Lejeune’s water was contaminated with the industrial chemicals TCE and PCE, which are linked to a long list of health problems, including leukemia and neural tube defects in children exposed in the womb. As many as one million members of military families drank and bathed in the contaminated water, and 850 of them are now seeking nearly $4 billion in compensation. Contamination was first identified in Camp Lejeune wells in 1980 and 1981, but officials waited five years before acting to address the problems.  (See these Associated Press stories for more details.)

Ensminger’s daughter Janey, who was conceived when her parents lived at Camp Lejeune, was diagnosed with leukemia at age 6. Ensminger described the pain of seeing his daughter undergo painful medical procedures, and hearing her beg him not to let them hurt her anymore. When her treatments left her bald and overweight, her classmates teased her, calling her “Cabbage Patch Kid.” Ensminger was at Janey’s side when she died, at the age of 9.

Many other parents share Ensminger’s grief – and his feelings of anger and betrayal. “Navy and Marine Corps officials were knowingly poisoning their own people,” Ensminger told the Committee.

In addition to delaying the shutoff of the contaminated wells, Navy and Marine Corps officials have slowed the progress of a study by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry on Camp Lejeune exposures. Last year, Rita Beamish reported for the Associated Press:

At Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps said in a written statement it gave U.S. health investigators “full access” to its records, including “vast and varied” documents, e-mails, maps, contracts and technical information. However, military lawyers acknowledged they are blocking plans for health officials to disclose some records publicly, citing privacy, legal and security concerns. …

Health officials repeatedly have complained about slow Defense responses to their information requests, correspondence shows. Military officials initially opposed a full study of child illnesses and balked for three years at paying for it, according to documents reviewed [by] the Associated Press.

Last week, Ensminger testified that this situation has not improved:

Since the ATSDR entered the gates of Camp Lejeune to execute their congressionally mandated mission, representative of the Department of the Navy have done all they could to obstruct their efforts. I can make this statement with confidence because I possess the documentation to back it up! As recently as the week before last, DoD and DoN officials were threatening to thwart the ATSDR’s initiatives at Camp Lejeune by withholding funding!

The Department of Defense is a major polluter, so its involvement in matters concerning TCE and other contaminants is a clear conflict of interest. Congress could help the Camp Lejeune research move more quickly by appropriating separate funds for studies, so ATSDR doesn’t need to rely on DOD to supply the money. When it comes to the IRIS assessments, we need an Office of Management and Budget that’s willing to let EPA do its job without interference from polluters, whether they’re corporations or other government agencies.

UPDATE (6/18): There’s a website called The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten that’s dedicated to spreading the word about the Lejeuene water, particularly for those who were exposed to it. It includes lots of links to historical documents and news for those interested in learning more.

Comments

  1. #1 Annie
    June 17, 2008

    I recently learned of the OMB’s Circular A-11 in which the innocuous looking Section 22 is a real catch 22.

    It forbids government agency representatives from providing testimony to Congress or in public which involves admitting needs for funding that are in excess what Bush has specifically approved.

    I’m thinking that this obscure Bush rule may be behind many agencies’ refusal (FDA most recently) to admit to Congress what funds it needs to be functional and operational.

  2. #2 Celeste Monforton
    June 17, 2008

    Amen: “we need an Office of Management and Budget that’s willing to let EPA do its job without interference from polluters, whether they’re corporations or other government agencies.”

    Liz, GREAT post!

  3. #3 Liz
    June 17, 2008

    Thanks for pointing out Section 22, Annie. I think the practice of an agency head insisting that the official budget request is adequate (when it clearly isn’t) probably dates back a while, but like a lot of bad trends it has only gotten worse over the last few years.

  4. #4 Dick
    June 18, 2008

    Liz,
    Excellent post on the IRIS/Camp Lejeune testimony last week. There are some on-going and proposed ATSDR studies of military families and civilians exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune that should be supported. This is what Jerry Ensminger and his fellow members of the Community Assistance Panel (CAP) are trying to do. I am a scientific adviser to the CAP and I urge all the readers of the Pump Handle who are interested in TCE, PCE and their health effects to help make sure this work goes forward. There is more information, including the remarkable water distribution model developed for these studies, at http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/SITES/LEJEUNE/
    More to follow.

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