The U.S. Marine Corps taught Jerry Ensminger to be a tenacious fighter, a dogged investigator and an arresting public speaker.
“They created me,” the retired master sergeant says. “And now I've turned this weapon on them.”
Ensminger, a crew-cut career Marine now retired and living outside White Lake, is one of a handful of leaders in a nationwide fight to get the Corps to release information about contaminated drinking water that circulated through Camp Lejeune for decades before poisoned wells were closed in the mid-1980s.
He and others spend countless hours digging through records, presenting their findings to members of Congress and posting them on a Web site, The Few, the Proud, the Forgotten. They have kept the issue alive, they say, in hopes of getting help for people made sick by the water or who lost loved ones to illnesses caused by it. Ensminger's daughter, Janey, died in 1985 of leukemia, which Ensminger believes she contracted from exposure to the water at Camp Lejeune. She was 9.
In 1997, a federal agency that studied the contamination and its possible effects issued a report that said adults who drank, bathed in and cleaned with the tainted water faced almost no increased risk of cancer or other illness. This month, Ensminger and his cohorts claimed a victory when the agency retracted that report.
The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry also acknowledged for the first time that the water contained benzene, a known carcinogen. And it is working on a modeling project expected to show that tainted water flowed to the spigots of many more people than the Marine Corps originally reported and for much longer.
By some estimates, 1 million people – Marines and their dependents along with civilians who lived and worked on the base – are thought to have been exposed to a stew of chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer, birth defects, neurological disorders and other illnesses.
The contamination likely started within a few years of when Camp Lejeune was established in 1942, according to the toxic substances agency. It grew worse as tens of thousands of gallons of chemicals used for military vehicles, munitions, construction and pest control were spilled, dumped or buried all over the 244-square-mile base. Additional chemicals seeped into the water after leaching from a dry cleaner and other businesses just outside the base.
The report the agency pulled from its Web site earlier this month had said that the greatest health risks from the water were potential effects on fetuses and young children from exposure to two solvents: tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, and trichloroethylene, or TCE.
After the agency withdrew the report, U.S. Sens. Kay Hagan and Richard Burr sent a joint letter to the secretary of the Navy asking for a meeting to discuss why the Marines, which fall under the Department of the Navy, have been slow to release information when they have been ordered by Congress to do so.
First Lt. Brian Block, spokesman for the Marine Corps Headquarters in Quantico, Va., said the Marines have readily shared information about the water at Lejeune with the toxic substances agency.
“The health and safety of our Marines, Sailors, civilians and their families is our highest priority,” Block said in an e-mail response to a reporter's question. “The Marine Corps is committed to the ongoing scientific studies and research efforts to find answers to questions and concerns about health issues associated with exposure to contaminated water.”