Veterans, families demand that EPA ban toxic chemical found in tap water at US military bases
By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 1, 2018
WASHINGTON – A delay by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ban a cancer-causing industrial solvent has put the lives of servicemembers, their families and others at risk who live at or near hundreds of military bases, said a Marine veteran who claimed his daughter died as a result of exposure to toxic water at Camp Lejeune.
“What the hell are we waiting on? What is the EPA waiting for?” demanded Jerry Ensminger, who was stationed at the Marine Corps base in North Carolina.
Ensminger, flanked by other families impacted by the toxic water, made his plea Wednesday during a news conference on Capitol Hill to urge the EPA to ban high-risk uses of the carcinogenic compound known as trichloroethylene, or TCE, which is impacting an estimated 14 million Americans, according to the advocacy and research organization Environmental Working Group, which publicized the findings after studying EPA-mandated tests.
“In 2015, the latest year for which comprehensive data is available, TCE was detected in EPA-mandated tests by 321 public water systems in 36 states,” the environmental group found. “In about half of those systems, average annual levels of TCE were above what some health authorities say is safe for infants and developing fetuses.”
TCE, has been found at more than 400 Superfund sites, many of which are at or near military bases, such as Camp Lejeune, according to the environmental group. Some veterans and their families who served or lived there later developed various kinds of cancer and neurological ailments, such as Parkinson’s disease, from drinking water contaminated with TCE or other toxic chemicals, according to the group.
On Wednesday, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., joined Ensminger and residents from five states who denounced delays to enforce the TCE ban at the Superfund sites, which are land contaminated by hazardous waste. The impacted residents from New York, North Carolina, Indiana, Arizona and California said TCE exposure has led to illnesses in their families.
“People should be able to trust their government to be doing everything they can,” Udall said. “These heroic citizens are making a simple request, protect the people, ban TCE.”
For Ensminger, he lost his daughter Janey in 1985 to leukemia. Ensminger, who retired in 1984, said Janey, who died at the age of 6, was his only child exposed to the chemicals, and he’s deeply troubled by the inaction on TCE.
“Is it the EPA or should we call it the EDA., the environmental destruction agency? That’s what it has turned into under this administration. It’s a joke,” Ensminger said.
The concerns come after an Environmental Working Group report last month found widespread TCE water contamination and during a tumultuous time for the EPA, which saw its controversial chief Scott Pruitt resign last month. His potential replacement, acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, who testified before a Senate hearing Wednesday.
“You are staffing [the EPA] with people from chemical industries,” Ensminger railed. “The administrator is a former coal lobbyist and the one before him an attorney general known for giveaways to polluters. Really? I’m at a loss. This is crazy.”
Exposure to TCE has been linked to birth defects, liver, kidney and neurological damage, as well as leukemia and other cancers, the Environmental Working Group said.
In December 2016, the EPA proposed banning uses of TCE as an aerosol degreaser and spot cleaner in dry cleaning facilities, the first proposed ban in more than 25 years under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The EPA later proposed a ban of TCE in vapor degreasing.
Under President Donald Trump’s administration, the EPA has retreated from its proposed bans, the environmental group and others claims.
“We are here two years later.. and the EPA still hasn’t finalized its ban,” Udall said. “Unfortunately, it looks like the Trump EPA has never met a chemical it doesn’t like.”
An EPA spokeswoman did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment.
Marine Corps veteran Jerry Ensminger of White Lake, N.C., left, talks with Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., before a Capitol Hill press conference on August 1, 2018. Ensminger's daughter was exposed to toxic chemicals while the family was living at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and died of leukemia.
JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES