RALEIGH, N.C. -- Tens of thousands more Marines and their relatives could be eligible for government health care for their illnesses now that a federal agency determined that the water at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune was contaminated four years earlier than previously thought.
In a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said computer modeling shows that drinking water in the residential Hadnot Point area was unsafe for human consumption as far back as 1953. President Barack Obama signed a law last year granting health care and screening to Marines and their dependents on the base between 1957 and 1987.
"This is yet another piece of the puzzle that's coming together and slowly exposing the extent of the contamination at Camp Lejeune -- and the Marine Corps' culpability and negligence," said Mike Partain, a Marine's son who was born at the southeast North Carolina base and who says he is one of at least 82 men diagnosed with breast cancer. "This is four years overdue."
The Marines were slow to react after groundwater sampling first showed contamination on the base in the early 1980s. Some drinking water wells were closed in 1984 and 1985, after further testing confirmed contamination from leaking fuel tanks and an off-base dry cleaner.
Health officials believe as many as 1 million people may have been exposed to tainted water. A Marine Corps spokeswoman estimated Friday that the time line expansion adds 33,000 to 53,000 to the number of people at Lejeune while the water was contaminated.
The Hadnot Point water system supplied the barracks where the majority of the Marines lived, as well as the Naval Hospital, unmarried officer barracks and some family housing areas. "It is by far the largest exposed population on the base," Partain said.
In a letter to Gen. Allison Hickey, VA undersecretary for benefits, the head of the toxic substance registry noted that a preliminary water modeling report showed that the period covered under the 2012 legislation didn't go back far enough, and that volatile organic compounds exceeded maximum contaminant levels at Hadnot Point as early as August 1953.
"I hope this information is useful as the Department of Veterans Affairs evaluates claims from veterans who served at USMC Camp Lejeune prior to the release of our full water modeling report in the spring," agency Director Christopher J. Portier wrote in the letter, dated Wednesday.
The letter was first released publicly during a meeting Thursday of the agency's community assistance panel at the disease registry headquarters in Atlanta. Former Marines and family members angrily questioned officials about why these studies have taken so long to complete.
During the meeting, a VA representative said the approval rate for claims related to the water contamination has been about 25 percent so far. As of September, the VA had granted 17 breast cancer claims and denied 13 others; not all were males.
Documents show that underground storage tanks at Hadnot Point may have leaked more than 1 million gallons of fuel, a much bigger concern than the off-base dry cleaners, said Partain.
"This exposure had nothing to do with ABC cleaners and was the sole responsibility of the USMC," Partain said in an email.
The Marine Corps "has long recognized its responsibility for addressing contaminated areas at the base," said Capt. Kendra Motz, a Marine spokeswoman. Standard practices for safe water didn't exist at the time of the contamination, and the Marines have addressed the problem in various documents and by informing base residents of it, she said.
Former Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger singled out the case of a Florida Marine who is dying of a rare case of male breast cancer, and whose claim the VA recently denied.
"We've got veterans out there with life-ending diseases," said Ensminger, who blames the contamination for the leukemia that killed his 9-year-old daughter, Janey, in 1985. "These people are terminal, and they need this information."
That veteran, Tom Gervasi, 76, had his left breast removed in 2003. His service at Camp Lejeune ended six months before the cutoff date.
The VA has denied his cancer claim twice. He learned of the most recent rejection on Wednesday in a call from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's office.
Gervasi's doctors have given him at most three years to live. He would like his wife, Elaine, to have VA benefits when he is gone.
"Hopefully, this will work in my favor," Gervasi said in a telephone interview Friday from his home in Sarasota. "I don't know. It's sort of like fighting city hall, so to speak. When you're fighting the federal government, you're not always going to win. Very seldom you're going to win."
"It is my hope that VA will act quickly to amend their policy and review relevant disability claims that have been denied," U.S. Sen. Richard Burr said in a statement. "These men and women have been suffering through no fault of their own and we owe them the care they need without delay."
A VA spokesman didn't respond directly to how the department will handle claims from 1953 to 1957 now. "The VA remains committed to providing the best quality care and benefits for eligible Veterans of service at Camp Lejeune to the full extent authorized by law," the spokesman said.
Ensminger told the group that a fellow Marine had succumbed the day before to kidney cancer, one of the diseases linked to the Lejeune contamination.
"I know you all deal with facts and figures; I deal with the personal aspect of this," he said. "You get to know these people. You cry with them, and every one of them that dies, you die a little bit each time with them. And it's just not fun."