WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s nominee to be secretary of defense, said Thursday that he was committed to providing Marines with answers about the water contamination that occurred at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. If he’s confirmed, he pledged, he’ll work to overcome bureaucratic hurdles that may obstruct findings about the impact of the contamination on Marines and their family members.
“There should never, ever be a question about health and the safety and the environment that we put our men and women and their families in when we ask them to make sacrifices to serve this country,” Hagel said.
He was responding to a question from Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan during his nearly eight-hour confirmation hearing Thursday with the Senate Armed Services Committee. Hagan, of North Carolina, expressed concern about unanswered questions from the U.S. government about who was exposed to the harmful chemicals, the impacts on their health and what the government knew about the exposure.
She said that men, women and children were dying or going broke trying to pay for treatment while they waited for government studies to be completed on the water contamination.
“The quest for answers and looking into this has been long,” Hagan said. “It’s been drawn out.”
Federal scientists say that at least three water systems at the Marine Corps base near Jacksonville, N.C., were contaminated. Hundreds of thousands of Marine veterans and family members now living across the country are thought to have been poisoned with trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, benzene and vinyl chloride. Some medical experts have linked the contamination to birth defects, childhood leukemia and a variety of other cancers.
Hagan, as well as Republican Sen. Richard Burr and Democratic former Rep. Brad Miller, both of North Carolina, helped lead efforts to pass a law that helped sick Marines and their families.
President Obama signed the Camp Lejeune law in August. It provides health care for people who lived or worked at the base from 1957 to 1987 and have conditions listed within the bill that are linked to exposure to dangerous chemicals. Federal scientists announced this month that they’d discovered that water had been contaminated at two additional water-distribution systems as far back as August 1953, four years earlier than previous findings.
Hagel and Hagan have had at least one long conversation in her office on this issue, and Hagel said the discussions would continue.