We’ve written before about the problem of contaminated water at the Camp Lejeune military base in North Carolina. Between 1957 and 1987, the base’s water was contaminated with the industrial chemicals TCE and PCE, which are linked to a long list of health problems, including leukemia and neural tube defects in children exposed in the womb. Although 1,500 former base residents had filed damage claims totaling $33.8 billion, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (part of the Department of Health and Human Services) stood by a report that claimed drinking and bathing in the contaminated water posed little or no increased cancer risk.

Earlier this week, the Associated Press’s Rita Beamish reported that ATSDR has reversed its stance and withdrawn the 1997 report due to “omissions and scientific inaccuracy.” That document omitted information about benzene that was also found in a Camp Lejeune well, and it underestimated the extent of contamination in the areas where base residents lived. Also, newer science has characterized TCE as being even more potent than previously thought.

Beamish and the AP deserve credit for sticking with this story; it was their investigation that in 2007 revealed the underestimation of contamination in base housing areas. It appears that ATSDR is also working hard to correct past mistakes. (Perhaps in response to the House Science and Technology Committee’s Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee, which has been holding hearings highlighting the agency’s inadequate response to public health problems.) What I’m still looking for is an indication that the Department of Defense is ready to stop dragging its feet on its contaminated sites.

Beamish notes in her article that the underestimation of contamination in the 1997 ATSDR report was due to “inadequate information” from the military. The picture that has emerged from the AP’s investigation and Congressional testimony is that this “inadequate information” wasn’t a simple mistake – it was part of a pattern of blocking the release of documents that health officials need.

The problem isn’t confined to Camp Lejeune, either. The Department of Defense is also one of the agencies that’s behind the slowdown of EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System assessments, which inform federal environmental standards and many environmental protection programs at the local, state, and even international level. The Government Accountability Office investigated the IRIS program last year and found that the top reason EPA has been so slow to issue new chemical assessments is a new “interagency review” process. Here’s what the GAO report says about the history of that process:

This process, initially conducted on an ad hoc basis, was put in place in response to interagency conflicts that EPA faced when it attempted to finalize some IRIS assessments for chemicals that became highly controversial, such as perchlorate, naphthalene, and TCE—chemicals that are or have been considered by some federal agencies, including DOD, DOE, and NASA, to be integral to their missions. Notably, EPA’s IRIS assessments of these chemicals could lead to regulatory actions that could, among other things, restrict the use of these chemicals, require agencies to provide protective gear to their employees exposed to the chemicals at work, or require agencies or their contractors to carry out or pay for cleanup of contamination at federal sites. The interagency conflicts about these IRIS assessments have contributed to their delays—resulting, for example, in EPA having to essentially restart the naphthalene assessment after it had been drafted and peer reviewed.

I’d like to know more about how ATSDR finally got the Camp Lejeune information on the extent of contamination in the base housing area. Did the publicity and pressure surrounding last year’s hearing and investigation convince them that they couldn’t drag their feet any longer? Or did they perhaps have a change of heart and realize that being open about the environmental impacts of their operations is the right thing to do? I’d like to think it’s the latter, but it’s not time to call off scrutiny of DoD’s stance on environmental matters yet.