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The Toxic Homefront: As Marine Families Fall Ill, Some Are Accusing the Corps Of Negligence
Last December, Noah Brletich was jolted from a deep sleep by his own heart, beating so fast and hard, it felt as if it would explode. Brletich, born with just three chambers in his heart instead of the usual four, is familiar with cardiac abnormalities, but this was different.
“Any time you experience something out of the ordinary, it scares the hell out of you,” the 21-year-old told Task & Purpose. “Even regular sicknesses, like the flu, send me to the emergency room.”
Brletich, the son of retired Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer 5 Mike Brletich and Lesa Brletich, has been battling life-threatening health issues since before he was born. He underwent his first open-heart surgery at two months, and by age 2 ½, had two more. At 3, he was so ill, the Make A Wish Foundation granted his family a trip to Disney World.
Fortunately, an experimental device saved Noah’s life, and the Brletiches thought the worst was behind them. But nearly a decade later, when another son slid hard into a base at a baseball game and began peeing blood, they learned that he, too, had a birth defect: He had been born with only one kidney. Then there’s their oldest son, Michael, who proudly served as a Marine like his dad, but later spiraled into mental illness. He is serving 10 years in prison for crimes committed during a psychotic break, an episode the family believes may also be related to Michael’s exposure to toxins as a child.
When the Brletiches moved into a cute blue and white Cape Cod at 3311 Cooper Street in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in 1989, they had little reason to worry about any health risks. News reports had started trickling out about water problems in another neighborhood on base, Tarawa Terrace, where dry cleaning solvents had been found in the water system. It was ultimately determined that more than 750,000 Marines, their spouses and children were exposed to the tainted water from the 1950s to the 1980s at housing areas across the sprawling base. But at the time, few outside the base environmental office knew the extent of the issue, which involved several other toxic chemicals. More important, the Department of Defense had declared Lejeune’s water free of toxins as of Dec. 31, 1987, more than a year before the Brletiches arrived.
Later, with three ill sons, they began to wonder if that assessment had been overly optimistic.
Courtesy photoNoah Brletich underwent his first open-heart surgery at age 2.
In 2013, Mike Brletich visited Camp Lejeune for business and decided to drive by his old house. He was surprised to find that it no longer existed. Instead, the yard was empty and surrounded by a chain link fence bearing signs: “Contaminated area – Do Not Enter.” Curiously, the other houses on the block were still standing.
According to the Marine Corps, the yard at 3311 once contained an underground tank used to store home heating oil. Although it was no longer used and had been filled with sand before the Brletiches lived there, it already had contaminated the soil and groundwater around the house with a mix of benzene, naphthalene, toluene and other hydrocarbons. The Corps decided to remove the tank altogether in 2001, and in 2011, after testing the water and soil multiple times and taking air samples from inside the house, a decision was made to tear the entire structure down — a choice Corps officials say was done to “properly remediate contaminated soil.”
The Brletiches, who’d since moved on, were never told. And neither were any of the other previous occupants of the house, or of 3354 Jones Street, also demolished for the same reasons.
“I am furious,” Lesa Brletich said. “These houses were toxic pits.”
Mike agreed. “Our neighbor next door from that time period died of brain cancer,” he said. “Her doctor said it may have been caused by benzene exposure. Two neighbors on the other side are battling cancer. This can’t be coincidence.”
“Our neighbor next door from that time period died of brain cancer. … Two neighbors on the other side are battling cancer. This can’t be coincidence.”
The Marine Corps has known of unseen dangers at its military bases for years. Eight installations are listed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund National Priorities List, including Lejeune, Camp Pendleton, California, and Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina. At bases around the country, and even the world, soil and groundwater contain measurable amounts of toxins, including aviation fuel, pesticides, paint, polychlorinated biphenyls, volatile organic compounds, and more. At many of the sites, the Corps has drilled monitoring wells to track and document the levels of contamination. The service also has embarked on cleanup efforts. But with the exception of the Camp Lejeune toxic drinking water scandal — the extent of which was not disclosed for decades, and then only after media outlets and advocates began investigating it — the Corps has not publicized ongoing problems with tainted soil and groundwater in on-base neighborhoods.
The Camp Lejeune water contamination ranks as the biggest in U.S. history — bigger than the infamous case in Flint, Michigan, where nearly 100,000 residents drank, bathed in, and cleaned with water containing high levels of lead for 18 months, starting in 2014. In Flint, the contamination was so severe that the health effects were known within a year, with families falling ill and children registering lead levels that likely will affect their development and cognitive abilities for life.
The Camp Lejeune case was stealthier, unfolding quietly over more than 30 years. Hundreds of mothers suffered miscarriages or gave birth to stillborn babies or infants with birth defects, such as spina bifida. An unknown number, but likely thousands, have developed cancers, including leukemia, bladder, liver, and kidney cancer, and Parkinson’s disease, after living on the base. Some, like Janey Ensminger, the daughter of Jerry Ensminger, now a retired Marine Corps master sergeant, died. Janey was lost to acute lymphocytic leukemia. She was 9.
Her father, whose tenacity in seeking answers to the cause of Janey’s death led to a federal law providing health care and compensation to Camp Lejeune families, has testified that military personnel who deploy expect that their families are kept safe at home.
YouTube screenshotAmanda Whatley with a picture of her daughter, Katie, at age 6.
“We volunteered to serve and protect our nation… We never volunteered to be poisoned by our own leaders,” he wrote on a change.org petition in 2012.
In January of this year, in response to the activism of Jerry Ensminger and others, the Department of Veterans Affairs earmarked more than $2 billion to cover disability benefits for eligible service members who were exposed to the tainted water and have since developed one of the eight diseases — which include several types of cancer, as well as Parkinson’s disease — associated with the exposure. On his way out the door, VA Secretary Robert McDonald determined there was "sufficient scientific and medical evidence" to establish a “presumption of service connection” for service members who served at Camp Lejeune between Aug. 1, 1953 and Dec. 31, 1987.
But having lived at Lejeune two years after the 1987 cutoff, the Brletiches are not eligible for this care. And given the unfortunate history of denial from the Defense Department and VA involving environmental exposures — from Agent Orange in Vietnam and sarin gas in the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War to chemical weapons in Iraq — they, and other veterans and families, are wondering if they can trust the military and its Dec. 31 “all fine” declaration.
But the Brletiches are not the only ones asking questions about their on-base housing. In January, Marine wife Amanda Whatley set up her phone in front of the couch, offered a tight smile, pushed through her nervousness, and began to talk. Eighteen minutes later, she was still talking. The resulting video, posted to YouTube, was a warning. Until recently, Whatley lived with her family in the Laurel Bay housing area at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina. Now, Whatley’s daughter is gravely ill with leukemia. Her neighbor and friend Melany Stawnyczyj also had a son diagnosed with cancer. Whatley blamed the cancers on exposure to benzene and other chemicals in the soil beneath their homes — contaminated, she theorized, by rusting underground storage tanks that once held heating oil.
She said she made the broadcast because she felt the Marine Corps had not moved swiftly enough to notify families who had lived in the neighborhood of an ongoing investigation into a possible cancer cluster.
“People still live there, and there are hundreds and hundreds of families that have moved away,” Whatley said in the video.
When Whatley made her video, she knew of eight children who’d lived in base housing and had cancer. Three months later, it has been viewed by more than 50,000 people, many of whom contacted her with their own horror stories. As a result, the number has grown to 13 children and 20 adults.
“The tanks are leaking benzene, a carcinogen, into the soil,” Whatley said. “This is not conspiracy theory information, this is fact that the government has put out.”
The Marine Corps began removing 1,251 underground storage tanks from Laurel Bay in 2007. During the removal, base officials “discovered that some of the petroleum product had escaped,” according to documents, and they took steps to mitigate contamination and installed monitoring wells to determine whether the groundwater had been affected.
“I’d like someone high up in the food chain to just say they screwed up.”
The Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center have launched an investigation into the possible cancer cluster but aren’t ready to say yet whether there is a higher incidence rate for the neighborhood, much less to name a cause. “Drawing a conclusion or sharing personal opinions about causation before the study is completed is counter-productive and may harm fellow Marine families,” base commander Col. Peter D. Buck said in a statement posted earlier this year on the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort web site. “There is also the potential to create a lot of unnecessary fear.”
The tanks at Laurel Bay have all been removed, but as with the homes at Camp Lejeune, soil and groundwater contamination remain a concern.
Courtesy photoThe Brletiches’ home at 3311 Cooper Street has been demolished by the Corps.
Meanwhile, the residential underground storage tanks aren’t Laurel Bay’s only environmental problem: Sometime in the early 1990s, a sizable gasoline spill occurred at the neighborhood Marine Mart convenience store. The resulting plume of dangerous contaminants is slowly working its way along the substrate beneath the facility and nearby houses. Although the spill happened more than 20 years ago, the chemicals involved are slow to biodegrade and must be tracked to determine whether they are naturally dissipating.
A 1996 study of the plume concluded the neighborhood was safe because there would be no point of contact between the chemicals with humans or wildlife. But three years later, another review raised concerns about contamination of the underground aquifer and the nearness of the pollution to a swale behind the houses that carries rainwater to the river.
Marine Corps officials said they are waiting for public health investigation to conclude before determining how to proceed. The “tradeoff is the time it takes to analyze the information in order to have certainty,” base public affairs officials said in a released statement.
They added, “Like the families, we desire results of the NMCPHC study so we can better understand the situation and provide appropriate support to the families.”
Back at the Cooper and Jones Street houses, tests in 2011 showed that contamination levels were increasing in the groundwater, and indoor air quality tests determined that while no significant vapor intrusion appeared to be occurring, the home’s indoor air quality was poor, with chloroform levels hitting three to six times the accepted residential levels, naphthalene up to nine times the level, and benzene readings slightly above accepted standards.
The Brletiches believe that their children’s health issues are tied to the house — whether as a result of the underground storage tank or ongoing issues with contaminated soil or water. Some 30 years after the Marine Corps shut down the last contaminated drinking water source, monitoring wells registered levels of benzene in groundwater at nearly 4,000 times the federal standard for drinking water, and benzene has been found in the base’s deepest aquifer.
Courtesy photoNoah Brletich
Still, proving definitively that a health issue sprung from a particular chemical in the environment is a challenge, experts say. “It’s very difficult to prove a causative relationship between contamination of the soil at the [Cooper Street] house and health effects,” explained Markus Hilpert, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University. “Unfortunately, there are no epidemiological studies or controlled-exposure studies examining the health effects of living in proximity to chemicals such as this.”
In looking into the Cooper Street case, though, Hilpert found another possible source for chemical exposure: For a brief period in 1989, the house’s drinking water may have come from the Tarawa Terrace wells, a source known to have been extensively contaminated.
According to engineers working for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Research, a March 1991 report noted that the wells, which were primarily contaminated with perchloroethylene, a dry-cleaning solvent, were used for an “extended period” to supply water to the Holcomb Boulevard Water Treatment plant in 1989 — long after they were supposed to have been taken offline due to extensive contamination.
Prenatal exposure to perchloroethylene has been linked to birth defects.
But Marine Corps officials say the ATSDR report is incorrect and insist that the Tarawa Terrace plant was never used after March 1987 and was demolished shortly afterward. In documentation on the homes, the Marine Corps concluded that the contamination, which was at least four feet below ground level, did not pose any health risk to residents. The Brletiches would have liked to have been informed of problems with the house in order to draw their own conclusion.
“No one has spoken with me or my wife to this day about the contamination in and around our home,” Mike Brletich said. “Not a soul. And my guess is that no one else who lived at 3311 Cooper Street has been contacted either.”
“These houses were toxic pits.”
According to the Brletiches, a number of their former neighbors have developed cancer, and some have died of the disease; others have lost babies to sudden infant death syndrome. That said, most of the families who lived in the Brletiches’ house or the Jones Street home appear to be healthy. Of eight families tracked down by Task & Purpose, three others had health issues, albeit with no common threads: One wife could not have children; a child who was a newborn in one of the houses is deaf; and another family had a son who was later diagnosed with kidney cancer.
The father of that child, Marine Lt. Col. Ethan Bishop, is an environmental engineer. Contacted by Task & Purpose, he declined to tie his son’s illness to possible environmental exposures. “Sometimes stuff just happens,” Bishop said. “Who knows what caused it? You could make yourself crazy trying to cast blame.”
Another Marine spouse who lived in the Cooper Street home wishes she had been able to find out more about the modest three-bedroom house before she moved there. She said she wondered about the house’s safety, since the Corps was digging up the backyard while her family lived there. She added that she only found out about health concerns after seeing a Facebook page Lesa Brletich set up to find former residents.
The spouse, who didn’t want her name used because her husband is still on active duty, said the Cooper Street home just had “bad juju.”
“I always had headaches in that house,” she added. “My sister, who used to visit frequently from New York City, would get sick in that house. Imagine that. When she went back to New York, she felt better.”
The Marine Corps has never responded to the Brletiches request that the families who once lived in the Cooper or Jones homes be notified of its history.
Neither has the Corps contacted past residents of Laurel Bay, although Amanda Whatley’s video has been circulated widely among Marine Corps families.
In January, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control issued a report saying that data from Laurel Bay shows there is neither an increased rate of cancer or cancer fatalities for the ZIP code that includes Laurel Bay. But Katie Whatley’s leukemia, as well as other cases, were diagnosed after the families had moved away, so their illnesses would not have been included in the data.
Whatley continues to urge Marine spouses to circulate her video so that past Laurel Bay families can monitor their children for signs of cancer. “Hopefully nothing is wrong, but if they do have cancer, hopefully you’ll catch it a very early stage and you won’t have to go down the road our family has for the last two years,” she suggested in the video. (Whatley, who initially made a round of media appearances, declined to be interviewed on the advice of her family’s lawyer.)
“My sister, who used to visit frequently from New York City, would get sick in that house. Imagine that. When she went back to New York, she felt better.”
The Brletiches also want the Marine Corps to divulge any information the service has compiled about health problems among Marines and their dependents at Camp Lejeune after 1987.
In a best-case scenario, Noah Brletich, whose recent development of premature ventricular contractions — the cause of his frightening irregular heartbeat — guarantees he’ll take daily medication for the rest of his life, would like to receive the same health benefits extended by the VA to family members affected by the Camp Lejeune water crisis.
At the very least, he’d like some acknowledgment from the Marine Corps that the neighborhood he grew up in was responsible for his life-threatening birth defects.
“I’d like someone high up in the food chain to just say they screwed up,” he said.
To find out about possible contaminants in your neighborhood, including assessments of water and soil quality, cancer rates and known toxins, check out Upstreamreports.com.
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