A public health team found evidence of carcinogens at the war crimes court compound at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, but has concluded so far that the buildings are safe for occupancy, the Navy said Friday.
“Saying that the buildings are habitable does not mean that they found no evidence of carcinogens,” base spokeswoman Kelly A. Wirfel wrote in an email late Friday to the Miami Herald. “There is asbestos (which is a carcinogen) in several of the buildings in that area, but the asbestos does not present a risk because there is no exposure pathway.
“Determining that the buildings are habitable means that the preliminary findings by the Public Health Team determined there is no imminent danger to personnel working in the buildings.”
Wirfel was answering a question from the Herald about a hilltop administrative building currently used by lawyers, prosecutors, linguists and other war court staff that houses an unused medium-security courtroom. The building, with a former air-traffic control tower, is one of the best-known sites at Camp Justice because journalists are allowed to photograph it.
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Wirfel said that courtroom, where Osama bin Laden’s driver and media secretary were tried, also had asbestos under floor tile that was either “removed” or “remediated” in 2010.
An Industrial Hygiene team from the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center went to the base Aug. 4 to carry out what was described as “a comprehensive occupational and environmental health survey” at the war court compound. “While a complete and final report is not yet finished, initial findings indicated that the buildings at the Office of Military Commissions at Guantánamo Bay are habitable for occupancy,” according to a statement from the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery early Friday afternoon.
It added that the public health team “used protocols set by the Centers for Disease Control, which include a review of historical documentation, medical records and industrial hygiene and habitability assessments.” It said the team would present its final report and recommendations to “Navy leadership” before September.
Camp Justice, with a $12 million maximum-security court, trailer park known as “the Cuzcos,” offices and tent city is built atop the obsolete McCalla air field. In the 1990s it was used as a migrant camp for Cuban families picked up at sea during the so-called rafter crisis.
An attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, J. Wells Dixon, was critical of the statement, which he read to exclude a finding of habitability of the trailer park for temporary court staff.
“It doesn’t say anything about the Cuzcos nor does it say anything about the runway, which is the central area of concern,” he said. “We are consulting with environmental experts to determine what if any steps need to be taken independently from the Navy investigation.”
He also wondered aloud whether there was “unexploded ordnance” at the site could be making people sick.
The Pentagon Inspector General’s office requested the health investigation after a Naval Reserves officer filed a complaint July 14 citing seven instances of civilians and service members who contracted a variety of cancers and had spent time at Camp Justice. One of the seven, Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, had cancer of the appendix and died days after the officer filed the complaint.
The Miami Herald has independently been looking into the incidence of cancer by people who spent time at Camp Justice and found a small sample of a dozen people who suffered a wide range of cancers in recent years — including brain, colon and appendix cancer and instances of a tumor in one service member’s stomach and on the leg of another. In at least two of the cases, the patients were believed to have had cancer before staying at Camp Justice.
A Guantánamo fact sheet earlier said that those who conducted the review include “epidemiologists, human health risk assessors, occupational and environmental physicians, environmental health specialists, industrial hygienists and other health experts who review medical and historical records, and available testing and sampling data to determine if there are any potential impacts or health risks associated with potential exposure to environmental hazards.”
The Navy’s statement about the health investigation came a day after the Army judge in the Sept. 11 case canceled hearings scheduled to take place at the compound later this month. The judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, cited an unrelated issue involving whether a secret FBI investigation has created a conflict of interest on the defense team of Ramzi bin al Shibh, accused of being a deputy to the alleged hijacking plot mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 7 p.m. Friday with new information released by the Navy.
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▪ A Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, said Thursday that the war court judge canceled Aug. 24-Sept. 4 pretrial hearings in the Sept. 11 case because of “issues that remain unresolved with regard to a claimed defense counsel conflict of interest.”
▪ The Navy base public health review statements can be found here.