Trump officials conceal information as military base water contamination victims fight for justice

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-NM), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, hold hearing on Capitol Hill on July 11, 2018 to receive testimony about air and water pollution. CREDIT: Mark Hand/ThinkProgress

There were glimmers of hope during the Obama administration that the federal government, particularly the U.S. military, was turning the corner on taking responsibility for the contaminated water disaster at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

In 2012, Congress passed a bill signed into law by President Barack Obama extending free medical care to veterans and their families who suffered from exposure to the contaminated water at the nation’s largest Marine Corps base between 1957 and 1987.

But the hopes for continued progress at Camp Lejeune were largely dashed when President Trump entered office and prioritized rescuing the chemical industry from regulations that companies viewed as burdensome.

Along with rolling back rules for chemical companies, the Trump administration blocked the publication of a health study about toxic chemicals that have polluted water supplies near chemical plants and military bases, as well as other locations in the United States. Administration officials, including former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt, intervened to block release of the study.

One White House aide wrote in an email that the study would create “a potential public relations nightmare” for the administration. The administration finally released the study last month after media attention and bipartisan outcry.

With Trump as president, Peggy Price, who was a sergeant in the Marine Corps stationed at Camp Lejeune in 1983 and 1984, is ratcheting up her fight for justice for veterans and their families stationed at the Marine base. Almost 1 million veterans and their family members were potentially exposed to the contaminated water during this time period.

Service members and their families drank and bathed in harmful chemicals at concentrations as high as 3,400 times the level permitted by safety standards. The water was found to be contaminated with industrial solvents, benzene, and other chemicals. It’s believed that the contamination came from three sources: leaking underground fuel storage tanks, a dry-cleaning company near the base, and chemicals used to clean the military equipment on base.

Many former base residents later developed cancer or other ailments attributed to the contaminated water. Price and other victims claim military leaders concealed knowledge of the problem and did not act properly in trying to resolve it or notify former base residents that their health might be at risk.

This week, Price traveled to Washington from her home in Pittsburgh to testify about her family’s nightmare caused by the water contamination at Camp Lejeune. This is the first time lawmakers had invited her to Capitol Hill to tell her distressing story.

During her assignment at Camp Lejeune, Price didn’t know she was eating, bathing in, and drinking some of the most contaminated water in U.S. history.

Since her time at Camp Lejeune, Price — who worked as a cryptologic signals intelligence analyst during her time there — has experienced a range of medical issues: 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. Even more upsetting to Price is how her children have also suffered from the military’s failure to provide safe water to the residents and workers at Camp Lejeune.

Her oldest child, who was born at Camp Lejeune in 1984, was diagnosed with an adult form of cancer at the age of 13. Another one of her 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 and asthma.

The 61-year-old Price doubts the military will ever approve her claims for military benefits. Price believes that by speaking out, though, she’ll help younger veterans and their family members who were sickened at Camp Lejeune and other military bases.

“It’s not going to change anything for me,” Price said in an interview with ThinkProgress prior to giving testimony to a panel of Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. “It’s not going to change anything for my kids. But if it changes things for at least one family, then I’ve done my job and I can go happy.”

A 2012 documentary, “Semper Fi: Always Faithful,”  tells the Camp Lejeune contamination story. The documentary contends that base officials received multiple warnings from 1980 to 1984 that tests of the drinking water showed toxic chemicals including the solvents trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE), and the fuel additive benzene. Yet the first contaminated well wasn’t closed until late-1984.

The Trump administration delayed release of the health study on water contamination because “they were covering their own necks, which seems to be a trend in the Trump Administration,” Price said in her testimony.

At Camp Lejeune, Price believes the military cover-up of the water contamination  was related to cost. The military, she said, didn’t want to be on the hook for claims in the billions of dollars.

“I’ve been denied benefits from the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] twice and I’ve just given up,” Price told ThinkProgress. “I don’t even have the classification of disabled veteran.”

After Price described the nightmare she and her family members have lived through over the past 25 years, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told Price that her testimony “will make a difference,” possibly helping people exposed to contaminated water at other military bases across the country and in cities such as Flint, Michigan.

“And let’s see what we can do about those veteran’s benefits,” Pelosi added.

Peggy Price (right), a former Marine who was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, testified on July 11, 2018, before House Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Price's granddaughter is on the left. CREDIT: Mark Hand/ThinkProgress

Price compared the difficulty in getting benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs to what Vietnam War veterans experienced with Agent Orange exposure, the toxic herbicide that U.S. planes sprayed on jungles in Vietnam. According to the EPA, the chemical can cause cancer, disrupt the immune system and interfere with hormones.

“It’s like Agent Orange, it would be so costly that they’re going to let everyone die before they start paying,” she said.

Vietnam veterans often struggle getting benefits from exposure to Agent Orange. Many have waited years to get their claims approved by the VA. Veterans often die before their cases are approved. Veterans advocates suggest that spouses of veterans should be persistent in getting access to Agent Orange benefits, even after a Vietnam veteran dies.

The 2012 Camp Lejeune law covers treatment for a long list of medical conditions, including leukemia, aplastic anemia, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and Parkinson’s disease.

Based on her research, Price believes it was predominantly exposure to TCE and PCE that gave her health problems. A major contributor to the contaminated water were chemicals from the off-site dry cleaning business. The military finally closed the drinking wells that were affected by the dry cleaning chemicals by 1987.

“At a number of other military bases across the country, another common chemical that’s found contaminating the water is PFAS that I also found out later was likely present at Camp Lejeune too,” Price said in her testimony. “Overall, it’s particularly bad for the military and for veterans like me because these chemicals were used in the past for everyday military functions.”

Price is pressing for the federal government to release information on contaminated water on U.S. military bases. Water in or around more than 100 military bases across the country is contaminated with higher than acceptable levels of these chemicals, Price noted.

“Families coming behind me with all the bases that are still messed up,” Price told ThinkProgress, “I know what they’re going to go through because I’ve been through it.”