Government watchdogs are crying "bullshit" and calling the U.S. Navy a "bully" in response to a redacted federal report on the drinking water supply at the Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune, the site of an ongoing pollution scandal.
The report released on Friday is a prerequisite for studies to come out in the next couple of years exploring links between chemical exposures in the late-1950s to mid-1980s and what appears to be increased levels of cancer and other diseases among former Camp Lejeune residents. Watchdog groups say that redacting information pertinent to these studies could impede justice.
"Given the many documented instances of inappropriate secrecy related to the Camp Lejeune water contamination, it unfortunately is only reasonable to question the interest being sought by the Marine Corps," reads a letter addressed to U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday.
The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) and 30 other groups, including the Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Health, signed the letter and sent another version Tuesday to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
"Quite clearly, the Navy is bullying," Angela Canterbury, director of public policy for POGO, told The Huffington Post.
As HuffPost reported on Jan. 13, the U.S. Navy urged the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to suppress from its report details about the locations of active water lines, wells, treatment plants and storage tanks on the North Carolina military base -- in the name of national security.
The disease registry obliged.
"We appreciate [the disease registry's] willingness to incorporate drinking water system security concerns into their Chapter B and future reports," Capt. Kendra N. Hardesty, a Marine Corps spokeswoman, told HuffPost in an email. "The request to redact was only with regard to the public release of active drinking water system information as a force protection measure."
In other words, the Department of Navy still provided the disease registry with all of the information necessary to complete its studies, noted Hardesty. Outside scientists who reviewed the new report before publication also had access to the redacted data.
Canterbury, however, warned that this is insufficient disclosure to ensure the "integrity of the science."
"It is well understood in the scientific community that there's a formal peer review process and there's also informal peer review where other scientists in the community want full information so they can carefully inspect the findings," Canterbury said. "How are these scientists or legal experts going to determine what's missing, or the validity of what's there?"
Without complete information, she said it would also be difficult for victims and their families to take legal action. Legislation is currently pending in the House and Senate that would provide benefits for those suffering as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals, including the solvents trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene as well as the fuel additive benzene. For now, the burden of proof rests on the victims.
Further, the legal justification used for the redactions is questionable, according to the watchdogs' letters. The redactions were made without reference to the recently passed exemption to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which allows withholding of "Critical Infrastructure Security Information" -- but only when the public interest is outweighed by the need to protect this information.
Hardesty said that, in this case, FOIA is not applicable. "FOIA relates to instances where the public requests information from the government, not when the government puts information into a report," she said. "Nevertheless, the public interest in full disclosure was taken into account and balanced against our responsibility to protect Marines and their families."
POGO intends to file a FOIA for access to the full report, according to Canterbury. "When push comes to shove, the most relevant legal determination about what is public and what isn't will be FOIA," she said. "We will be very interested to see their legal justification for any redactions."
Retired Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, the central character in a documentary about the contamination controversy, "Semper Fi: Always Faithful," expressed his concern that the censoring sets a dangerous precedent. He said he foresees more redactions in the future.
"The Department of Navy and Marine Corps have been trying to kill this water model ever since [the disease registry] announced they were going to do it," said Ensminger, who has submitted a separate FOIA request.
The redacted information is already publicly available, Ensminger added. The Marines previously distributed print materials, while Google Earth offers views of above-ground water infrastructure such as red-and-white checkered tanks.
"Conflicts of interest should be strongly considered when a federal entity whose site is under investigation by another agency urges for secrecy of any kind," the letters say. Camp Lejeune is referred to as "likely the worst known water contamination site in U.S. History."
"Here we have the polluter dictating to the investigating agency what they can and cannot use," Ensminger said. "The Department of Navy will get away with murder based on a bullshit national security claim."