House Approves Bill to Help Sick Families of NC Military Base Water Contamination

PHOTO: Camp Lejeune, a military base in North Carolina, is home to hundreds of thousands of Marines and their families. Its also the site of what may be the largest water contamination in American history.PlayABC News
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Five weeks after "Nightline" reported on the decades-long attempt to secure health benefits for Marines and their families sickened by contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune, residents are finally getting the help they need, 30 years later.

The House of Representatives approved the Janey Ensminger Act on Tuesday, which will provide health care to those who lived or worked at the North Carolina military base for at least 30 days from 1957 to 1987. The bill now heads to President Barack Obama's desk for his signature.

Health officials believe that as many as one million people may have been exposed in what may be the site of the largest water contamination in American history. Many Marines and their families who drank water laced with cancer-causing chemicals have died and others are still getting sick today.

The Janey Ensminger Act is named for the 9-year-old girl who died of leukemia in 1985. Her father, Jerry Ensminger, a career marine who raised his family at Camp Lejeune, has worked tirelessly with other Lejeune alumni to get the word out about the contamination after the Marine Corp dragged its feet for years to alert the servicemen and their families.

"This bill is confirmation of what I've been saying for 15 years, that we were harmed," Ensminger said. "The Marine Corp and Department of the Navy would say, oh they didn't do anything wrong, well they did and Congress just confirmed that they did something wrong."

While Ensminger said he felt "pride" for Janey, the bill contains certain provisions that he didn't agree with, such as the Dept. of Veterans Affairs would be the "payer of last resort" instead of first resort.

He also said the fight isn't over and he will continue to seek out why the Department of the Navy and the Marine Corps still refuse to release all of the information relating to the water contamination.

"We were poisoned by the people we trusted the most, our own leaders, agents acting in a position of authority for the federal government," Ensminger said. "Its going to take somebody in Congress to hold these people accountable for the misinformation and disinformation that they've been putting out...over the decades."

In a previous interview with "Nightline," Ensminger said Janey's death had always seemed somewhat mysterious to him and he began to investigate what might have caused his daughter's cancer. He said his first clue came from a local TV station's report in 1997, saying that contaminants discovered in the base's drinking water had been possibly linked to childhood cancer and birth defects, primarily leukemia.

"I dropped my plate of spaghetti right there on the living room floor," Ensminger told "Nightline" at the time. "That started this journey for the truth."

Ensminger teamed up with Mike Partain, a Florida man who was born at Camp Lejeune and later developed a rare form of breast cancer, to help get the word out. Through his own research, Partain said he has documented 80 cases of male breast cancer among men who were born or served at Camp Lejeune.

For years, there has been a bureaucratic battle over which agency should be responsible for funding the health care of those affected by the contamination: the Defense Department, which owned the base, or the Department of Veterans Affairs, which covers service-connected illness, injury and disability.

Capt. Kendra Motz, a Marine Corps spokeswoman, told ABC News in a statement that the Corps will support the bill if it becomes law and that they "continue to work diligently to identify and notify individuals who, in the past, may have been exposed to the chemicals in drinking water."

In addition, Motz said they are "supporting research efforts that attempt to determine whether exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune is associated with adverse health issues."