Navy health teams still analyzing Guantánamo’s Camp Justice

The tent city portion of Camp Justice, at U.S. Navy base Guantánamo, on Feb. 25, 2016 in a photo approved for release by the U.S. military.
The tent city portion of Camp Justice, at U.S. Navy base Guantánamo, on Feb. 25, 2016 in a photo approved for release by the U.S. military.

A Feb. 23 health and safety report on contaminants at the Guantánamo war court compound does not offer an opinion on the safety of staying and working there because Navy environmental health experts have not completed their tests and won’t until the fall, the head of Navy Medicine East says.

However, Rear Adm. Kenneth Iverson, a family physician and commander of half of Navy Medicine’s global healthcare system, told the Miami Herald in an interview this week that given the history of the crude compound called Camp Justice as a former Navy airfield he was surprised that sampling hadn’t found more chemicals on the site.

Meantime, Iverson said he couldn’t fault the caution of a Marine general who has forbidden troops assigned to terrorism case defense teams to sleep at the site for now.

Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker, the chief defense counsel at the Office of Military Commissions, had 10 members of his staff moved out of the compound last weekend to Navy base guest quarters after receiving a copy of the Feb. 23 report that does not repeat August, September and October public health announcements that the “buildings, tents, and trailers” at Camp Justice are “habitable for occupancy.”

Navy epidemiologists are going through the files of 700 troops that worked or lived at Guantánamo’s obsolete airfield 2003-15.

That 2015 habitability assessment was based on early industrial hygiene, sanitation and mold inspections, “from gross observation the place appears to be habitable,” Iverson told the Herald.

Now with a more comprehensive analysis underway evaluating chemicals found, pathways of exposure and the risks associated with non-cancer-causing agents, the health establishment will not offer an opinion before additional tests and analysis produce a final report in the fall.

In a potentially related development, the Pentagon disclosed without explanation Friday evening that an Army judge slated to take over a war court case — managing the guilty plea of former CIA captive Majid Khan — had canceled what was to be the next Camp Justice hearing, on May 11-12. Army Col. Tara Osborn, the judge, postponed the hearing until Aug. 30 “in the interest of justice,” according to those who had read her order.

The Feb. 23 preliminary report, obtained by the Herald, and still withheld from public release by the Navy, described formaldehyde in indoor air samples, mercury in the floor of lawyers’ offices in what was once a dental clinic; excess bromodichloromethane and chloroform in two showers; arsenic in soil samples and PCBs in and around a ramshackle hangar where journalists and troops work and attorneys brief the media.

The Navy provided two experts to brief the Herald on Thursday.

The Navy continued Friday to refuse to release the report, days after the Herald obtained and posted it.

“I said to the team, ‘Are you willing to say there’s no risk to being in these buildings?’ Of course scientists are not going to say there’s no risk,” Iverson said.

“I said, ‘Are you willing to say there’s low risk?’ There was a level of discomfort to say there’s low risk because you know, again, the report is preliminary and all the data’s not in. They don’t want to be boxed in to say something is low risk.”

The now months of health and safety studies began after a Navy officer sent the Inspector General’s Office a list of people who worked at the site and contracted serious diseases as Navy Lt. Cmdr. Bill Kuebler, 44, was dying of appendix cancer in July.

A preliminary Aug. 14 study dismissed the notion of a cancer cluster, saying the incidents and types of cancers among former staff were too disparate. In January, a 36-year-old contract linguist who lived and worked at the site since 2007 died of brain cancer.

Now, the Navy’s Epidemiological Data Center has expanded its examination to the health records of about 700 troops who were assigned to the Office of Military Commissions between 2003 and 2015, Dr. Paul Gillooly, a civilian doctor and health risk assessor at the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center in Norfolk, Virginia, said Friday in written answers to questions submitted by the Herald.

Troops didn’t live at the compound built atop the former McCalla airfield until 2007, when the first tents and trailer parks were set up and troops dubbed it “Camp Justice.” Before then, the first prison commanders had headquarters on the site, and the Pentagon held on-again, off-again hearings and trials for low-value detainees in a hilltop building from 2004. Osama bin Laden’s former media aide, still appealing his conviction, was tried and sentenced to life there in 2008.

Navy teams also plan to test the entire base’s air quality, focusing on what is emanating from solid waste incinerators.

The ongoing studies also include overall air quality at the base of about 6,000 people — 2,000 of whom work at the prison of 89 captives.

That testing involves taking samples from the base’s solid waste incinerators, said Gillooly.

“We need to test air quality of the base for an overall sample size,” he said. “Air quality, or air sampling, is one of three sampling efforts necessary to complete a public health review: air, drinking water and soil.”

The base first installed “air-curtain incinerators” in 1998, before the creation of the war-on-terror prison that tripled the base population.

The Pentagon has since added four more incinerators — one in 2008 and the last three in 2010, but never tested the air quality of emissions, Gillooly said. They burn solid waste at a site not far from the first terror prison, Camp X-Ray on the northeastern extreme of the base, near the fence line with Cuba.

The Navy has two focuses of concern at Camp Justice, Iverson and Gilloly said: The air quality in a trailer park where some lawyers and their staff sleep — tests detected formaldehyde — and the air quality in some legal offices in a former dental clinic where tests found mercury in the floors. At the trailer park, workers are adding air-conditioning and changing the air flow before retesting. Testing in the offices is planned to figure out how much of the mercury is airborne at the height where the lawyers and their staff breathe.

A senior Navy health official said he was surprised an initial survey didn’t find more chemicals at the former airfield.

Site testing and records reviews on the old airstrip itself found arsenic in the soil — “very, very low thresholds,” Iverson said, that triggered a requirement to search more deeply to decide whether it’s naturally occurring.

Meantime, Pentagon officials would not explain Friday why a report dated Feb. 23 reached would-be residents of the crude compound the same day the Sept. 11 trial judge canceled a two-week hearing session, on April 1. An Army colonel’s cover letter on the Feb. 23 report, obtained by the Miami Herald, indicated it was distributed to the chief prosecutor, defense counsel and the judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, on April 1.

Navy Cmdr. Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman, said the trial judiciary would not disclose when it first saw the report, citing “ongoing litigation.” To date, no war court lawyer has filed any litigation involving the latest health survey, but the remark suggests the trial judiciary expects the controversy to reach the war court.

But it is clear that, once Baker read it, got briefed on it, and ordered his troops not to sleep there, other commanders with troops working there also obtained it. Iverson said that he briefed Rear Adm. Peter Clarke, commander of the detention center who has airmen and soldiers on his staff permanently assigned to work but not sleep there, by telephone Saturday.

Clarke said through a spokesman that he had no plan to withdraw his troops from the site and Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor, said this week he received the report and has decided that he and his team will live and work there when they return to the site in May.

Iverson said he also briefed Navy’s General Counsel Paul Oostburg Sanz, who currently has oversight of the war court, about the health report on Wednesday. “There's a real appetite that information goes smoothly to all the parties involved,” he said.

Gillooly said Friday that the Navy chose to withhold the report from the public because “of its preliminary nature.”

He declined to say when the Navy provided it the Office of Military Commissions, saying only that the Navy distributed it to people within the Department of Defense “who could take official action on its findings and recommendations. Because of the preliminary nature of these reports, Navy has not released it to the public.”

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg