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Newsmonger: First Camp Lejeune, Next Toxic Triangle?, Inside closed Lackland briefing

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas


Council last week gave unanimous blessing to Alamo Beer Co.'s plans to build a microbrewery on the east end of the historic Hays Street Bridge, approving a near $800,000 incentive package that lets Alamo Beer set up tables and chairs on the historic bridge deck rent-free. Before council's vote last week, someone climbed high atop the bridge's steel beams to drape a white banner scrawled with the words, "KEEP BUSINESS OFF OUR BRIDGE."

First Camp Lejeune, Next Toxic Triangle?

Activists for years have pointed to similarities between North Carolina's Camp Lejeune and San Antonio's now-shuttered Kelly Air Force Base. Both serve as stark examples of the military's checkered environmental past, where workers dumped or buried chemicals like trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), and benzene onsite. Those chemicals contaminated Camp Lejeune's tap water; Kelly eventually saw massive toxic plumes stretch beneath nearby homes, tainting now-capped wells residents used for drinking, washing cars, or watering gardens. And in both cases, official studies notably failed to definitively link illnesses plaguing residents to the contamination.

"If you look at the two, it's the same chemicals, a lot of it is from the same source, from degreasing solvents and things like that," said Wilma Subra, the MacArthur "genius" award-winning chemist and activist who has been working with residents of the area's so-called Toxic Triangle for a decade to document health effects and exposure to contaminants. The response from government and official studies were often the same with both military sites, she said. That is until last week. In what Subra called a "precedent-setting move," Congress approved a bill providing health care to former Camp Lejeune residents and workers exposed to the toxins — health officials estimated that as many as one million people may have been exposed to contaminants there. President Obama was expected to sign the bill early this week.

Former Marine Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger helped lead the hard-fought battle to make officials confront the human toll chemical dumping took on former Camp Lejeune workers and residents. The bill passed last week was named in part after Ensminger's daughter, Janey, who died of a rare form of leukemia, and whose death Ensminger blames on contaminated water. Ensminger himself has been quick to point to Kelly's Toxic Triangle as another example of the military's lasting environmental legacy. Speaking to the Current earlier this year, he recalled visiting Kelly's Toxic Triangle with filmmaker Rachel Libert while shooting the Oscar-shortlisted documentary Semper Fi: Always Faithful, a film that interviews long-standing Toxic Triangle activists like Robert Alvarado. "When you look at those neighborhoods I walked through, those people are for the most part poor, and they've been taken advantage of," he told the Current in April. He called residents of the Toxic Triangle "sacrificial lambs."

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