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Topics: Veterans Affairs

Watchdog: VA bureaucrats fiddle while Camp Lejeune veterans die

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News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs

First of a three-part series

Jim Watters was among the fewest of the few when he testified in Congress that poisoned water at Camp Lejeune was killing Marines, and that they were victims of "friendly fire" by federal agencies that refused to admit it.

After years of denials, the Department of Veterans Affairs finally acknowledged the toxic blend of chemicals in the drinking water at the North Carolina base "as likely as not" caused his kidney cancer, and granted him disability benefits.

He was one of the lucky ones, he said, because he worked as an assistant dean at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, where he had access to medical experts who helped him prove his case.

"Very few veterans have such resources available to them," Watters said. "Eventually, VA will develop a list of presumptive illnesses for those exposed at Camp Lejeune. It should not take 10 or 15 years. People are sick and they and their families need help now."

Watters, a combat-wounded Vietnam veteran who spent more than two years at Camp Lejeune, died in January 2011, four months after his testimony.

VA's Camp Lejeune delays
Department of Veterans Affairs officials refuse to recognize proven links between toxic water at Camp Lejeune and diseases that are killing Marines.

Today: VA bureaucrats fiddle while Camp Lejeune veterans die
Coming tomorrow: VA knows it will be around long after Lejeune Marine dies
Coming Friday: Lejeune Marine lost daughter but still fights bureaucrats, politicians

Read the entire series at this link

VA officials maintain there is no proven connection between the three decades of groundwater contamination at Camp Lejeune and the illnesses that have been killing Marines who served there.

They are waiting for results of a series of studies being conducted by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) examining contamination levels, mortality rates, afflictions and birth defects. The last of those studies is not due until 2014.

"Currently, there is a lack of scientific certainty about the relationship between exposures to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune and adverse health outcomes," said a VA spokeswoman.

But Dr. Christopher Portier, the recently retired director of ATSDR, said there is no reason for VA to wait for those studies to decide whether to recognize the connections between the chemicals in Camp Lejeune's water and the illnesses afflicting those who served there.

Those links have been known for decades, he said. The unfinished studies are not going to change that.

"These connections are fairly well known for these compounds," Portier said. "There is sufficient literature to make a decision about the association."

Unsafe levels of five chemicals, including trichloroethylene (TCE) and benzene, leached into the drinking water at Camp Lejeune at least since 1953, according to a study released in March by the ATSDR. The wells were shut down in 1985.

TCE levels peaked at 150 times what is considered safe in November 1983.

All but one of the chemicals "have been classified as causing or probably causing cancer," the report states, adding there are a variety of other conditions associated with exposure.

An estimated 1 million people, Marines and their family members, were exposed.

Last year, Congress recognized the connection, granting VA medical care to veterans and, to a lesser degree, their families, who developed any of 15 specified illnesses.

But the law only provides medical care. It did nothing to help veterans who file disability benefits claims. They must still prove on a case-by-case basis that it was the tainted water that caused their maladies.

The vast majority of them fail. VA has approved only about a quarter of the nearly 1,500 disability claims from veterans who say tainted water at Camp Lejuene caused their illnesses.

There is no doubt about the links between the toxins at Camp Lejeune and the medical conditions listed in the law, said Dr. Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus at Boston University.

"It should be a no-brainer. As far as the science, it's there," said Clapp, who has been involved with the Camp Lejeune issue for seven years.

To qualify for VA disability benefits, a veteran must prove three things: military service, a medical condition and a connection between the two.

For certain diseases and contaminants, there is a "presumption" of service connection, which eliminates the third requirement. The most notable is exposure to Agent Orange, the defoliant used in Vietnam now known to cause a variety of cancers and other conditions.

But there is no presumption for Camp Lejeune survivors. They must prove their conditions were caused by exposure, not something else like heredity or smoking, to win their claim.

Clapp said the scientific connections between the chemicals at Camp Lejeune and the ailments listed in the law are at least as strong as those for Agent Orange. It is "inevitable" that a presumption will eventually be granted, he said.

What's uncertain is when and how many vets will die before it happens.

"The VA has traditionally tried to downplay and delay," Clapp said. "That's unfortunately the history of that organization."

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner Watchdog investigative reporting team. He can be reached at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com.

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Mark Flatten

Senior Watchdog Reporter
The Washington Examiner