Reports of Strontium-90 Presence Prompt EPA Probe in N.C.

July 13, 2007

The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating whether cancer-causing radioactive material was buried in the 1980s near a rifle range at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the Marine Corps’ primary base on the Atlantic Ocean.

A recently recovered Navy document dated 1981 said the material included 160 pounds of soil and two animal carcasses laced with strontium-90, an isotope that causes cancer and leukemia.

“We are looking into this information to determine if we need to sample and where,” said Dawn Harris-Young, a spokeswoman for the EPA’s regional office in Atlanta. “It’s really early.”

The document said the dirt, carcasses and other materials containing strontium-90 originated at a naval research lab near the base and were buried in a remote area.

According to the paperwork, the waste was later recovered, “safely stored” and was awaiting shipment to an approved disposal site in South Carolina.

But base spokesman 2nd Lt. Craig Thomas said that because of record keeping practices in the early 1980s, the Marine Corps can’t find any proof the material was shipped to South Carolina.

The Marines informed the EPA of the past contamination while discussing the possible construction of a building nearby, Thomas said, adding that recent testing found there are “no harmful materials” at the site.

“I guarantee you the waste material from that lab is sitting over there” at the range, said Jerry Ensminger, a former Marine master sergeant who found the 1981 document while researching the base’s history of contaminated water. He also recalled seeing a sign warning of hazardous waste while hunting near the rifle range in 1986.

Ensminger came across the Navy document, as well as others referring to “radiation pools,” while seeking information on chemical contamination of water wells at the base. He said he also found a water-testing report from 1984 that showed radioactivity levels of more than twice the allowed amounts.

Over three decades, tens of thousands of Marines at Camp Lejeune and their families drank and bathed in water contaminated with as many as 40 times more toxins than permitted by safety standards. The wells had been contaminated with industrial solvents and were shut off in the mid-1980s. The base’s water now meets federal standards.

At least 850 former residents of the base have filed claims against the military, seeking nearly $4 billion, for exposure to the tainted water.

Ensminger, 55, served in the Marine Corps for 241/2 years, living for part of that time at Camp Lejeune. His 9-year-old daughter, Janey, died of cancer in 1985.

Today, he is a member of the Restoration Advisory Board, a panel of military and civilian representatives formed in 1996 to discuss the water contamination issues. He brought up the radioactivity report at a quarterly board meeting Tuesday night.

At the meeting, Robert Lowder, Camp Lejeune’s installation restoration program manager, said base officials have known about the 1981 document since 2004.

“It’s a valid concern,” Lowder said, according to The Daily News of Jacksonville. “But we have to find supporting documentation and do more comprehensive sampling.”

Local officials have also said they will listen to Ensminger’s concerns.

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