Did Camp Lejeune's Toxic Wells Sicken Kids?

Retired U.S. Marine Sgt. Jerry Ensminger is a proud Marine, but after his 9-year-old daughter died, he lost all respect for the Marine Corps leadership.

"Janey went through hell, and I went with her, and everybody who loved her went with her," Ensminger said.

The retired officer is convinced that his daughter's leukemia was caused by toxic chemicals in the drinking water at his former Marine base in Camp Lejeune, N.C. And he blames Marine officials.

"These people knew about these contaminants in the drinking water for over a year before Janie was diagnosed with leukemia," Ensminger said. "And they said nothing."

The contamination in the base's wells was first discovered in 1980. Three tests confirmed it in 1982. Janey was diagnosed with leukemia in 1983.

But Camp Lejeune officials didn't shut down the contaminated wells until almost two years later, in 1985, when they finally notified Marine families that "chemicals had been detected in the water."

The Ensmingers, who by that time had moved off-base, never got that notification.

Potential Childhood Cancer Risks

In fact, Jerry Ensminger did not learn of the contamination until more than a decade later, when he heard reports of a new federal study that found that the chemicals in the Camp Lejeune water — trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene — had been, by today's standards, quite toxic.

The study expressed special concern about children who might have been exposed in the womb when their mothers drank the contaminated water. Thousands of women fell into that category.

One of them is Mary Byron, who moved to the base with her husband Jeff, a former Marine air traffic controller, a few months after the 1982 tests. The couple had two daughters: Andrea, who was afflicted with a rare bone marrow disease, and Rachel, who was born with multiple birth defects.

When the Byrons read the federal study and its concerns about "potential childhood cancer risks … and birth defects" from Camp Lejeune's contaminated water, they felt they finally understood what had happened to their daughters.

"I was stunned," says Mary Byron. "I was shocked."

"She's had cleft palate surgery," Jeff Byron said of Rachel. "She's been diagnosed recently in the last two years with an arachnoid cyst on her spine they say is congenital from birth. She has spina bifida."

The Byrons asked themselves why their daughters were so ill and felt terrible.

"There was a lot of guilt," Mary Byron said. "And it wasn't our fault."

The Marine Corps acknowledges the chemicals leaked into the water from a number of dumpsites, both on and off the Marine base. The Byrons are furious over the way the Corps handled the contamination, particularly after seeing documents that show some Camp Lejeune officials, in the past, trying to "delay the questionnaires" that would alert more families to the problem. They also refer to Marines seeking more information as "disgruntled prior Marines."

Marine Corps officials declined an on-camera interview with ABCNEWS to answer questions about the contamination. They did, however, respond in writing.

The statement noted that, while "there were no regulatory standards established" for the chemicals back in the 1980s, the Marine commandant has "convened an independent panel to review the decisions that followed the 1980 discovery of chemicals in Camp Lejeune's water."

The Marine statement also said that the current Camp Lejeune water supply is safe.

No Plans to Notify Thousands

But while women like Mary Byron who were pregnant at Camp Lejeune at the time were eventually notified of the contamination, the Corps has no plans to notify thousands of other people who may have been exposed, saying the chemicals in the water "most likely would not harm adults," so it would be "premature" to send out "such additional notice at this time."

But political pressure is mounting for the Marine Corps to do just that.

"It will be a logistics nightmare," said Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C. "But I think the Marines can figure out how to do that and I think they should."

Another colleague in the Senate said he wants action, too.

"I'm going to be watching this very carefully," said Sen. James Jeffords, Ind-Vt. And I don't want any evidence given to me that they're trying to smooth things over."

Jerry Ensminger says he is not waiting for the Marine Corps to get the word out.

"The Marine Corps won't live up to their own motto," he said, referring to the traditional motto "Semper Fi," ("Ever Faithful"). "Well, I will. I'll live up to it. All those former Marines that were exposed to this, I'll let them know."

Some are pushing for a full federal investigation of the contamination. Jerry Ensminger believes that might finally answer some of the questions that still haunt him today.

Additional Web Resources on this story:

The Few, the Proud, the Forgotten: http://www.tftptf.com/ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/sites/lejeune/ Camp Lejeune Public Health Survey Information: http://www.usmc.mil/camplejeune/clbwatersurveyinfo.nsf THE STAND: www.watersurvivors.com