Harmful chemical study commission recommendations garner committee approval

3 weeks ago

AUGUSTA, Maine — The recommendations of a state commission calling on the federal government to help members of the Maine National Guard exposed to toxic chemicals while training at a military support base in Gagetown, New Brunswick, have received legislative approval.  

The Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs voted unanimously on Wednesday that an emergency bill on the work of the Gagetown Harmful Chemical Study Commision ought to pass as amended.

The act, LD 2274, implements recommendations the commission presented to the committee in January. Additionally, it reestablishes the commission, whose work ended in January, and adds two members with expertise in the effects of hazardous chemicals on the environment and human health. 

Initially, the commission — established last year under a law sponsored by Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash — was tasked with studying the impacts of exposure to harmful chemicals on Maine National Guard members who served at Gagetown.

In addressing the claims of hundreds of guardsmen and women who said they suffered illness and death from repeated exposure to deadly chemicals like Agent Orange at the Canadian base, the commission prepared a draft report of its findings, recommendations and suggested legislation.

“Evidence gathered by the commission and testimony received made it clear that Maine and Canadian servicemen and women that were stationed at the base were exposed to levels of carcinogenic chemicals that were not only harmful, but in too many cases were ultimately deadly,” said Jackson during a public hearing before the committee on Wednesday. “We conclude that the federal government is failing to support members of the national guard harmed by exposure to these chemicals.”

In 1966 and 1967 the Canadian government gave permission to the U.S. military to conduct small scale testing of tactical herbicides including agent orange, a known carcinogen, and other chemicals which make up the so-called herbicide rainbow, including Agent Blue, Pink, White and Green on the training fields at Gagetown.

Four years later, Maine National guard members began training on the base, often sleeping on chemical-sprayed fields. 

Decades later, as patterns of illnesses — cancers, and respiratory and reproductive problems — among both Canadian and Maine National Guard members surfaced. Mounting public pressure led to a fact-finding study by the Canadian government in 2005.

The study, which sought to determine health and environmental risks for service members, was deeply flawed, according to the commission.

The Canadian study reported that Maine National Guard members were not exposed to any health hazards while training at Gagetown. And because of these findings health and disability claims were denied by the U.S. government.

“Not one national guard member has been able to get any of their claims approved because of the fact finding study,” Jackson said.

The U.S. Army continues to train at Gagetown, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

“We are creating future victims and survivors every day,” Jackson said. “I don’t think that we can allow Maine service members to continue being stationed in Gagetown with this uncertainty.”

During Wednesday’s hearing, biochemical engineer Meg Sears, who chairs Prevent Cancer Now, a Canadian nonprofit focused on eliminating preventable contributors to cancer, said that earlier fact-finding studies on the toxicity of the ground and waters at Gagetown were scientifically faulty and manipulative. 

In particular, Sears was referring to the 2005 fact finding report.

Previously, Sears told the commission that dioxins accumulate in fatty tissue but when scientists conducted the study, they removed the fat layer from fish samples before testing them for dioxin levels, resulting in inaccurate results.

The effects of dioxin can remain in the environment for 100 years, Sears said. 

The Commission made four recommendations including:

  • The United States Department of Veterans Affairs provide access to medical care and assistance for members of the National Guard who trained at 5th Canadian Division Support Base Gagetown and have been diagnosed with a condition or illness associated with exposure to tactical herbicides or exposure to other dioxins; 
  • The Veterans and Legal Affairs committee invite experts to review underlying data to determine what steps and resources would be required to either reanalyze the existing data or to conduct new studies.
  • The Maine Department of Veterans Affairs and Emergency Management, Bureau of Veterans’ Services establish a registry of individuals who served in the Maine National Guard and trained at the Gagetown base.
  • The Legislature reestablish the Gagetown Harmful Chemical Study Commission to review materials and speak with experts to develop more concrete recommendations.

Following the recommendations, the bill establishes the Gagetown Training Registry within the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management’s Bureau of Veterans’ Services to collect and maintain data related to military service and health conditions. Experts have been added to the commission and the commission will continue studying the effects of the chemicals on health.

The data collection is an initial step in determining whether those members are eligible for state or federal assistance. 

The state of Maine and the federal government have the responsibility to those who served in the national guard and were exposed to harmful chemicals while serving at Gagetown, Jackson said. 

“We must take the necessary measures to right the wrongs of the past and assure that those who have suffered get the justice and the closure that they truly deserve,” he said.