Trump administration sits on study showing disturbing contamination levels on US military bases

A close-up portrait of a young Peggy Price

Peggy Price was stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, in the 1980s, where she worked as a cryptologic signals intelligence analyst and began raising a family. When her oldest child — who was born on base at Camp Lejeune in 1984 — was diagnosed with an adult form of cancer at the age of 13, Price started to wonder what could have caused it.

Price went on to experience a range of medical issues herself: a brain tumor, gallbladder removal, open-heart surgery, a ruptured appendix, skin cancer and breast cancer over the three decades since she worked on the base. Her two younger children, one of whom was conceived at Camp Lejeune but not born there, went on to have major ovarian cysts and other gynecological issues. Price’s fourth and youngest child also has chronic hearing loss, asthma and is on the autism spectrum.

“Something major and health-related with all four kids? What the hell?” Price told Mic. “These are odds that just don’t exist.”

Now Price — along with thousands of veterans, Americans and many lawmakers — is pressing for the federal government to release information on contaminated water on U.S. military bases. The Trump administration, including the White House and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, intervened earlier this year to prevent the release of a study showing even higher levels of contamination than previously believed. After media attention and bipartisan outcry, the administration released the study on June 21.

In 2000, a friend mentioned an article to Price that she had seen about water contamination at Camp Lejeune. News coverage at the time focused on dry-cleaning chemicals that had leached into groundwater and could be causing birth defects in children; the military closed the drinking wells that were affected by the dry cleaning chemicals by 1985. Suddenly, everything began to make sense to Price.

“Everything we went through is because of this stupid water,” Price said. “I signed up to serve, but my kids didn’t, and it’s not fair they’re going through this.”

Peggy Price

Widespread contamination on bases

It has been more than 30 years since the military first discovered water contamination at Lejeune. In the intervening years, the EPA and Department of Defense have been made aware of potentially greater contamination and toxicity.

As early as the 1990s, the EPA and the Department of Defense were aware that another compound — perfluoroalkyl substances, found in common goods like nonstick cookery and waterproof clothing — was potentially toxic and yet still being used on bases, Maureen Sullivan, deputy assistant secretary of Defense, Environment, Safety and Occupational Health, told the Military Times this month.

Yet throughout the ‘90s and 2000s, the Defense Department continued to use a firefighting foam compound on bases that contained PFAS and contaminated the water supply, potentially exposing thousands of U.S. veterans to toxic water. Even now, the DOD is phasing out foam that uses PFAS and replacing it with slightly altered chemical compounds that may still be dangerous, the Intercept reported earlier this year.

While the EPA initially released guidelines in 2009, in which it recommended a “safe” level of PFAS contamination in drinking water as 200 parts per trillion, it then revised the safety level to just 70 parts per trillion in 2016.

Now, a study from the Department of Health and Human Services that was set to reveal even lower levels of “safe” contamination has been blocked from being released. In May, Politico reported the Trump administration — including the White House and Scott Pruitt — intervened in the release of the study. One White House aide wrote in an email cited in the story that the study would create “a potential public relations nightmare” for the administration.

Andrew Harnik/AP

The HHS report still has not been released, despite calls from both sides of the aisle in Congress. A group of Democratic senators sent letters to Pruitt, HHS Secretary Alex Azar, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to ask for the release of the study and all internal documents and communications regarding discussion about the attempted cover-up of the report.

Multiple senate offices confirmed to Mic that Pruitt responded to the senators by saying the EPA does not have the authority to release the study. Officials from HHS have not yet responded. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who has been working on the issue of water contamination at military bases since 2016, expressed outrage over the executive branch’s lack of transparency and action.

“The idea that anyone in the federal government would suppress important health information — especially to ‘avoid a PR nightmare’ — is infuriating,” Murray said via email. “I’ve been working with the Department of Defense and the CDC for several years now to address this problem responsibly and do what’s necessary to help protect families’ public health. If the agencies did in fact attempt to conceal this report, they will face blowback not only from members of Congress but from families across this country.”

Murray first learned of the issue in 2016, after news reports surfaced of PFAS contamination at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. The contamination was traced to firefighting equipment that nearly all military bases used, Murray’s office said. Murray began working with the Department of Defense to find out how many communities were at risk; she found that two Navy facilities in Washington state had tested positive for groundwater contaminated by PFAS chemicals. The senator then worked to secure funding for the DOD to study and clean up the bases, as well as money for the CDC to study the dangers of PFAS.

“I was always a sick kid.”

Angela Dodge, who was born on an air force base in Illinois and lived on bases in San Antonio and Oscoda, Michigan, throughout her childhood, believes the water on bases harmed veterans, civilians and dependents.

“I was always a sick kid,” Dodge said in an email to Mic. “Bronchitis, pneumonia, playground injuries, developed a severe penicillin allergy at the age of 10 and had to be hospitalized for that. I have lived with this thyroid condition for so long that I am not sure what it would be like not to have it.”

Every base Dodge lived on as a child has since been identified as having had a water supply contaminated by PFAS chemicals. Dodge was born with a double urethra, developed a goiter with nodules when she was 5 and had her thyroid “give out entirely right before puberty,” she said.

Dodge has also not only developed a prolapsed mitral valve in her heart as a side effect of her thyroid issues, but lost both of her parents relatively young: Her father died at 63 from a blood clot, and her mother died at 58 from endometrial cancer.

In March, the Department of Defense told Congress that water at 401 military installations around the U.S. and the world had been affected by PFAS contamination. The military’s use of the foam also, in some cases, contaminated drinking water of nearby communities. The March report called on the EPA to establish guidelines about how toxic PFAS really is.

Potential effects of PFAS exposure include developmental delays in fetuses and children; decreased fertility; increased cholesterol; changes to the immune system; increased uric acid levels; changes in liver enzymes; and prostate, kidney and testicular cancer, according to the DOD’s March report.

The military has begun distributing bottled water in affected bases and communities, Sullivan said. Yet the federal government has not acknowledged the scope of the potential damage PFAS has caused, veterans say.

Dodge said she wishes the government would pay attention to the stories of those impacted by contaminated water supplies on military bases and “help us heal and be better. I’m running out of time, but there are many others who could be helped. Monetary compensation would be OK, but that’s not the point. Help the people you harmed.”

Allen Breed/AP

“Could this be what happened to Janey?”

A recent report by the nonprofit environmental watchdog Environmental Working Group shows that up to 110 million Americans could be drinking PFAS-contaminated water. Work by independent scientists show that safe levels of PFAS to be exposed to are far, far lower than the reporting level currently set by the EPA.

Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger spent nearly half of his military career stationed at Camp Lejeune. During his time at the base, where he lived off and on from 1970 to 1994, his daughter Janey was conceived — the only one of his four children to be conceived, carried or born while the family was living at Camp Lejeune. When Janey was 6, she was diagnosed with leukemia. She died of the disease in 1985, when she was just 9 years old.

But it wasn’t until August 1997 that Ensminger began to get any answers to what he describes as the question that nagged him since the day of her diagnosis: “Why? What happened?”

In a phone interview with Mic, Ensminger recalled the moment he first learned about the water contamination at Camp Lejeune like it was yesterday.

“I was living on my farm not far from Camp Lejeune, and I was walking out of the kitchen to my living room with a plate of spaghetti, to sit down and eat and watch the evening news. And the TV was already on and the reporter on the TV said that a report on contaminated water had just been released. He said the water had been found to be highly contaminated. And that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry suspected that it could cause childhood cancer, primarily leukemia. I dropped my plate of spaghetti on the living room floor and said, ‘Oh my God. Could this be what happened to Janey?’”

More than two decades later, Ensminger feels he may finally have answers, but he doesn’t feel any closer to the issue of contaminated water on bases like Lejeune getting the attention it deserves. He called the DOD “our nation’s greatest polluters” and said it was “using our country’s youth and people’s loved ones like guinea pigs. When is this going to stop?”

Ensminger said he would like to see the federal government compensate people who were affected and are still struggling today. While he would like the right to sue the DOD over the death of his daughter, he said it’s not about money.

“My fight over the years over this issue has never been about getting any money for Janey. No amount of money can help Janey — she’s dead. But there are people still alive and suffering from this, and they need to be taken care of and taken care of the right way. That means veterans and dependents and civilian employees,” he said. “The only way to make things change is if DOD is held accountable and to make it hurt.”

In the last days of Obama’s presidency, the Obama administration signed off on a $2.2 billion payout to veterans with health issues linked to Lejeune; the law enabling this was named for Janey Ensminger, and her father was present at its signing in the Oval Office. But the compensation may not affect everyone. Despite the health problems faced by Price and her children, she noted that the VA claims that though Price supplied a physician’s letter linking her health conditions to the Lejeune contamination, their own internal expert feels otherwise. None of her treatments for any of her conditions have been covered by the agency.

“Everyone hears that you serve and says, ‘Thank you for your service,’ but there’s more than the lip service of, ‘Thank you for your service.’ The silent killers of military and veterans are the water and ground contamination. People don’t know, so they don’t speak up — and it just continues because it can continue. If no one knows, they can just keep doing what they’re doing. That report needs to be released.”

Price said her time on base changed her life, and her family’s life, forever — a burden she still feels.

“I actually requested Camp Lejeune, and I wouldn’t have had I know about the contamination. I left in ‘84, but my life has not been the same since,” she said. “And I have so much guilt because I feel like [my children’s] health problems are all my fault. Because I was the one who served. I was the one stationed at Camp Lejeune. I was the one drinking the water on base, showering at base. And I see the problems [they] have and I think, ‘This is all my fault.’ How do you live with that?”

The EPA declined to comment on the record to Mic, and refused to say how long it had been aware of the toxicity of PFAS. A spokesperson said on background that the EPA was working to create a “National PFAS Management Plan. The agency will also take concrete actions to ensure PFAS is thoroughly addressed and all Americans have access to clean and safe drinking water.” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which oversees the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that is in charge of the study, said in a statement that it shared the study with EPA for peer review, as it typically does, and will incorporate changes into the final study. The agency does not currently have a release date set for the study, but said it is “preparing” for one.

June 25, 2018, 3 p.m.: This story has been updated.