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Congress wants answers on health impacts of Japan disaster relief

Sailors on the USS Ronald Reagan scrub the aircraft carrier’s deck to remove potential radiation contamination during Operation Tomodachi, the humanitarian response to the earthquake and tsunami that ravaged northeast Japan and caused a nuclear meltdown at Fukushima in March 2011.

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Congress has instructed the Defense Department to launch an inquiry into potential health impacts on Navy first-responders from Japan’s March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

The request, made in the explanatory statement from the House that accompanied the fiscal 2014 budget bill that passed Congress this month, comes as a growing number of sailors and Marines have joined a lawsuit against Tokyo Electric Power Co.

While the instruction is not law, Defense Department officials said that they were taking the request seriously.

“The Department treats reporting requirements included in committee reports seriously and tries to respond to all of them,” Defense Department spokesman Army Lt. Col. Catherine Wilkinson wrote in a statement to Stars and Stripes.

The statement gives Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. Jonathan Woodson until April 15 to submit a report to the congressional defense committees that includes the number of sailors serving on the USS Ronald Reagan during Operation Tomodachi who were potentially exposed to increased levels of radiation; adverse medical conditions experienced by Reagan sailors since the operation; and actions taken before, during and after the operation to ensure sailors’ safety.

Woodson must also include the number of sailors who participated in the operation who are still in Navy, reservists who participated and sailors who have since separated.

About 50 sick sailors and Marines have accused TEPCO of lying about the risk of exposure, luring American forces closer to the affected areas and lulling others at bases across Japan into disregarding safety measures. These individuals claim to be suffering from exposure-related ailments such as unexplained cancers, excessive bleeding, thyroid issues and ailments including loss of muscle power, migraines and vision problems.

The suit was filed in federal court in San Diego in December 2012 seeking damages and funds to cover medical expenses. The original eight complainants were on the USS Ronald Reagan, but the suit has since expanded to include those who served aboard the USS Essex and USS Germantown as well as attached Marines.

The explanatory statement does not request an inquiry into the health and safety of Marines who participated in the operation.

“Recent reports of sailors who have developed cancer and other health conditions linked to radiation exposure after serving on the USS Ronald Reagan during Operation Tomodachi, which provided humanitarian assistance following the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan in March 2011, are disconcerting,” the statement said.

The statement directs Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to use allocated funds — for example, $200 million for its peer-reviewed medical research program, $100 million for its joint warfighter medical research program or $25 million for its peer-reviewed cancer research program — to research the health effects of radiation exposure and to ensure any health issues from the mission are fully addressed.

Mabus was also directed to report to the congressional defense committees on exposure-related research efforts.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs praised Congress for looking into the issue.

“It feels like maybe there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Paul Garner, lawyer for the plaintiffs, said. “But we shall see.”

Garner said they plan to file an amended complaint Feb. 6 to address issues raised by a federal judge in the case late last year. He expects 25 to 100 sailors and Marines to be added to the case, and that number could climb even after the amendment is filed.

“Their future is a dire one,” Garner said. “We’re pushing TEPCO to start a fund to help these people right now.”

Congress isn’t alone in taking notice. An online petition to “Help Irradiated Fukushima ‘First Responders’ from USS Ronald Reagan etc” was launched earlier this month on the community petition site AVAAZ.org. The petition has 238 signatures from people as far away as Canada and Grenada.

“Scores of brave US sailors were seriously contaminated and made sick by Fukushima radiation while helping to save Japanese citizens during the 3/11/11 earthquake/tsunami,” the petition reads. “But they were not told about massive radiation doses they suffered from the Fukushima melt-downs & explosions. Many are seriously ill and are suing Tokyo Electric Power. THEY NEED OUR HELP!”

When the March 11 disaster struck, the Reagan was on its way to Korea, according to Reagan sailors who participated in Operation Tomodachi. They turned around and immediately made their way for the Japanese mainland, passing through a sea of debris.

Sailors told Stars and Stripes that they believe they were as close as five miles off the coast of the stricken plant that spewed radiation into the air and sea.

Sailors who were onboard the Reagan have claimed that they were drinking contaminated desalinated seawater and bathing in it until the ship’s leadership came over the public address system and told them to stop because it was contaminated. They claim the ventilation system was also contaminated. Furthermore, some claim they were pressured into signing forms confirming they had been given iodine pills when none had been provided.

The Defense Department and other organizations have said the radiation levels that troops were exposed to during Operation Tomodachi were safe. The Navy has acknowledged that the Reagan passed through a plume of radiation but said that it was not harmful. They have declined to comment on many of the other facets of the plaintiffs’ case.

The scientific community is divided on the effects of low-level radiation.

Garner believes the number of sick servicemembers and the nature of their ailments speaks for itself. They are seeking at least $40 million each in compensatory and punitive damages and more than $1 billion for a fund to cover health monitoring and medical expenses.

“This is not going to disappear,” he said.

burke.matt@stripes.com

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