Pacific Swell

Southern California environment news and trends

The Oscars, the Marine Corps and a fight against water contamination

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28554 full

Following last week's posts on nominees for the Academy Award for Documentary Features comes another film: Semper Fi: Always Faithful

The documentary, directed by Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon, traces the history of one of the worst water contamination incidents in U.S. history. 

It focuses on former Marine Corps Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger's struggle after the death of his 9-year-old daughter Janey, who was diagnosed with a rare type of leukemia. Ensminger, who served for almost 25 years, discovers that the Corps he dedicated his life to was also the source of severe water contamination that was hidden from the public.

The contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina, exposed nearly one million people to toxic water. 

Ensminger and his family lived on the base during the time of peak contamination, which was estimated to have begun in 1957 and lasted until 1987 when many of the wells were closed. Tests in the 1980's showed the water posed some health concerns, but residents were never notified, even after the well closures.

In 1997, Ensminger saw a news report about residents who were exposed to chemicals on Camp Lejeune, and took the Marine Corps motto "Semper Fi," which means "Always Faithful," to heart in his fight for the cause.

The water contained carcinogens from leaking underground storage tanks located 1500 feet from water wells, industrial area spills, waste disposal sites and waste from an off-base dry cleaning business. The chemicals, including trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE), can cause conditions such as severe cancers, miscarriages, liver and kidney damage and heart defects, according to the Center for Disease Control.

The levels of these carcinogens found in the water were up to 280 times higher than the maximum level of contamination allowed in drinking water. Ensminger worked for more than a decade to expose the contamination and fight for the people who were devastated by the toxic water.

Legislation named for his daughter is currently pending in the House, with similar legislation in the Senate, that would provide healthcare to former Camp Lejeune residents impacted by the water. 

According to the Huffington Post,"the film stands as a testimony to what happens when the public's health is neither protected nor considered," especially at a time when the EPA is criticized for over-regulation. The Washington Post said the film is driven by the "implacable moral authority" of Ensminger.

The Academy Awards will be presented on Sunday, Feb. 26 at the Kodak Theatre. Other environmental documentaries being considered are "Jane's Journey," and "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front."

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