Federal scientists said Wednesday they could be months away from wrapping up a long-awaited study on whether contaminated water affected children at Camp Lejeune, the North Carolina Marine Corps' base where hundreds of thousands of residents may have been exposed to the tainted water supply over a 30-year span.
The news was little solace to members of a panel representing the former residents, who blasted government officials through a daylong meeting at a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention meeting in Atlanta.
"Nothing is happening here," said a frustrated Terry Dyer, who has a litany of health problems from living for 15 years on the base, where her father was a school principal.
"I'm tired of coming here," she said. "I'm tired of time away from my family. I'm tired of not knowing from day to day whether I'm going to die. I don't want to waste this time here because I want to be with my family."
The government's study is considered likely to influence the Pentagon's response to at least 850 pending legal claims by former residents of the Marine base who say their families were afflicted by the water before the tainted wells were shut off in the mid-1980s.
But the study can't be completed until a complex water modeling project tracking the contaminants' spread is completed, which could take another six weeks, scientists said.
Another study that would determine the water's impact on adults could begin late next year, but hinges first on a feasibility assessment that should be finished before the year's end, said Dr. Frank Bove, a senior epidemiologist with the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
"These studies have not been easy," said Bove, who asked the group to be patient. "And the future studies will take time, too."
At least 120,000 people lived in family housing that may have been affected over three decades starting as far back as 1957, plus uncounted civilian workers and Marines in barracks, according to Marine Corps figures. Federal lawmakers have said as many as 1 million people living and working at the base may have been exposed to contaminated drinking water.
About 56,000 Marines, family members and civilians now live or work at Camp Lejeune, the sprawling training and deployment base on the Atlantic Ocean. The base's water meets current federal standards.
Marine Corps officials have said Camp Lejeune followed environmental rules in effect at the time, saying the drinking water was "consistent with industry practices at the time."
The panel of former residents also demanded details on a recently revealed document that cancer-causing radioactive material was buried in the 1980s near a rifle range at the camp.
The Navy document said the material included 160 pounds of soil and two animal carcasses laced with strontium-90, an isotope that causes cancer and leukemia. It said the dirt, carcasses and other materials containing strontium-90 originated at a naval research lab near the base and were buried in a remote area.
Jeff Byron, a former Marine air traffic controller on the base, grew visibly frustrated as he asked Defense Department officials sitting in the back of the room to release more details on the testing.
"When are you going to divulge what you know? Why are you still holding back on Freedom of Information documents that we are requesting, instead of citing national security?" asked Byron, whose two children suffer from health problems including spinal disorder and an oral cleft birth defect.
"I'm sick of wasting my time with people who won't give us the truth."
The Defense Department has cited national security as the reason for withholding the documents.
Federal lawmakers have recently signaled renewed interest in scrutinizing the base after the public outrage over the government's treatment of sick veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and elsewhere.
A House subcommittee in June conducted an oversight hearing on the base, the first in a broader review by Democrats investigating the Pentagon's environmental record. And Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., has pushed two measures aimed at addressing the environmental tragedy.
The first is an amendment that would require the Navy to notify the residents of the base between 1958 and 1987 of their possible exposure to the contaminated water. She also introduced a bill last week that would require federal regulators to limit public exposure to drinking water polluted by trichloroethylene, or TCE, which was found in water consumed at the base.
The former residents hope to keep ramping up the pressure, in Washington and elsewhere.
"We're not going anywhere. We've lost too much," said Dyer. "There's not a person who's been affected by this that's living the life God intended. We haven't been given that because we were poisoned."