The Tragic History of Camp Lejeune Water Contamination

Camp Lejeune itself was built at the beginning of World War II. Military leadership decided on the need for an amphibious base on the East Coast of the United States to counter the German threat. Even after the war ended, Camp Lejeune continued to grow because of the base’s strategic importance. The base is used for amphibious assault training.

Camp Lejeune really began to grow in earnest in the 1950s. At this point, the Marine Corps began to build the infrastructure that could support thousands of service members and their families. As the base population expanded, the military needed to build and expand the infrastructure to house service members and their families.

history of camp Lejeune water contamination
history of camp Lejeune water contamination

Hadnot Point Was Built in Close Proximity to a Fuel Farm

The base sprang up quickly at the start of World War II. While the base was initially constructed with temporary structures, the Navy constructed a fuel farm to support operations. The fuel farm was located at Hadnot Point, and it contained 14 underground tanks that were placed at grade and covered with soil. The fuel farm was not in the best area, as it was just 1,200 feet away from a supply well. Read about the history of Camp Lejeune.

Hadnot Point was one of the first barracks on the base, and it was a central location in the early days of Camp Lejeune. The water well at Hadnot Point was susceptible to being permeated with leaking chemicals, and that is exactly what began to happen in 1952.

The Tarawa Terrace Water Treatment Plant Was Also Built in a Poor Location

Poor construction decisions continued as the base expanded. In 1952, the Navy built Tarawa Terrace subdivision and a water treatment plant. The water treatment plant and wells were located down a gradient from established gas stations, automobile repair shops and dry cleaners. One year later, ABC One Hour Dry Cleaner opened directly across the street from Tarawa Terrace. This dry cleaners site spewed dry cleaning solvents into the soil, which contaminated the groundwater. Eventually, the dry cleaners location was designated as a Superfund site because of all the toxins that leaked or were discharged into the surrounding areas.

Early reports in the 1950s found that the water wells were suitable, but they would require frequent maintenance inspections and repairs. Base officials knew all along of the potential for water contamination. In 1959, there was a report that stated that saltwater may encroach into the water supply as the base became more developed. The report stated that the base should work with hydrology experts to ensure a safe water supply and learn of the possible effects of development.

The Holcomb Point Water Treatment Plant Used Contaminated Water

Base personnel continued to drill water wells in questionable areas. For example, in 1972, a water well was drilled adjacent to the “Defense Reutilization Management Office.” This is another term for a junkyard. In 1985, tests for this particular well discovered extremely high amounts of trichloroethylene, dichloroethylene and vinyl chloride.

Base personnel made another questionable and dangerous decision when they decided to open the Holcomb Boulevard Water Treatment Plant (HBWTP). This plant took over the function of supplying some of the areas previously served by the Hadnot Point treatment plant. The problem was that the two systems still remained interconnected. When there was peak demand in the areas served by the HBWTP, the system drew water from the contaminated Hadnot Point plant. Base personnel could open valves between the two plants at any time, based on the demand. Thus, the contaminated water from Hadnot Point reached further on the base than before. The HBWTP had its own separate problems over the years. For example, in 1985, there was a large gasoline leak that contaminated the water.

One of the major water contamination issues at Camp Lejeune was the presence of benzene in the water. Benzene is a known carcinogen. Benzene possibly leaked into the water wells because of the large amount of chemicals that were buried in the ground.

Base Orders Required the Disposal of Chemicals

One of the major problems is that Base Orders regarding the disposal of toxic chemicals were at odds with the safety of the drinking water. For example, Base Order 5100.13B required that certain hazardous chemicals be disposed of at the base chemical dump. The problem was that this dump was located not too far away from the Hadnot Point treatment plant. Base personnel actively buried countless drums of hazardous chemicals at the dump all the way through 1974. It was not until 1974 that an updated base order recognized some of the potential hazards that chemical disposal posed to safe drinking water. For 15 years, there were large amounts of chemical drums buried to the point where Camp Lejeune was designated as a major polluter. While base officials’ actions were not smart, they were not necessarily doing anything wrong at the time. 

Base Personnel Began to Become Concerned About Possible Pollution

It was not until the late 1970s that there was some concern over contamination at Camp Lejeune. There were problems with drinking water found at two other military bases in the United States. In 1977, water wells at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire were found to contain trichloroethylene. In 1979, water testing at Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Pennsylvania revealed tetrachloroethylene (PCE) and TCE contamination in the base‟s drinking water supply.

Around that time, there was some concern because of Camp Lejeune’s status as a major polluter. There were some introductory conversations about drinking water safety and some haphazard attempts to conduct tests.

In 1979, there were recommendations that Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point water treatment plants be decommissioned due to age. However, they remained operational and continued to supply the base. There were efforts to assess some of the environmental deficiencies around the base.

Although it was 27 years before the water contamination began to be discovered, it should have come to no surprise given the way that Camp Lejeune was constructed. It seems as if there was very little forethought provided to safety and what should be located next to what. Chemicals and solvents were buried and dumped near groundwater supplies when the wells themselves were susceptible to contamination.

Concerns Began to Surface About Water Safety in 1980

It was not until 1980 that people began to realize that there may be a problem with Camp Lejeune water. In reality, the pollution problems at the base were well known before that, and the Marines should have performed an extensive investigation.

There were two developments that contributed to the discovery of the water contamination problems at Camp Lejeune:

  • In 1980, the State of North Carolina assumed responsibility for the enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act for all public water systems.
  • The EPA continued to publish new standards containing limits on certain hazardous chemicals in drinking water.

In 1980, an Army laboratory chief working on behalf of the EPA began to notice that there were high chemical levels in Camp Lejeune water tests and began to jot down some notes. His specific warning was ““Heavy Organic interference at CHCL2BR. You need to analyze for chlorinated organics by GC/MS.”

It all started with a one-page table, where this lab chief had written that “water is highly contaminated with low molecular weight halogenated hydrocarbons.” However, the Navy still dragged its feet on engaging in further testing. The initial warnings were roundly ignored. Even the testing that was performed did not have the same results, but there were discrepancies in the testing methods used.

A Contractor Issued Further Warnings That Were Ignored

In 1982, another contractor was hired to perform more testing. The contractor could not even get the readings he wanted to because the hydrocarbons noted two years earlier were interfering with the tests. That contractor issued repeated warnings to base officials about contaminated water, but they paid little attention.

One year later, the Marines told the EPA that there were no sites on base that posed a risk to human health, even after receiving several years of warnings that there may be a problem. It took four years from the time of the first warning until base officials shut down wells. They only did this after finding benzene in the water at some point in 1984. Even after the shutdown, they still turned these contaminated wells back on to relieve temporary supply shortages.

It Took Eight Years to Shut Down the Water Treatment Plants

In all, there were over eight years of back-and-forth between base personnel, environmental officials, contractors and the military about the potential hazards of the base water. In that time, many of these wells continued to operate, the last people to know were those who were affected by the hazardous water, even as they were sickened and suffered adverse health consequences.

One general had told residents that the wells were shut down in an abundance of caution based on “minute chemical readings.” Base officials continued to mislead the EPA and represented that there was no contamination at the Hadnot Point WTP. Two weeks after a key meeting in which base officials told the EPA that there was no problem, the water at this treatment plant was found to contain extremely high benzene levels.

By February 1988, base personnel were in full cover-up mode, claiming that they had no idea prior to 1983 that anything may have been in the water, even though there were warnings beginning in 1980.

Veterans Were Not Informed About Any Risks Until Years Later

It was not until 1991 that the government began to try to gauge the health effects that 35 years of toxic water could have had on those who drank it. Marine Corps officials were not providing full information to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, keeping the government from being able to notify people who were affected by the contaminated water. The ATSDR study did not always get the full funding necessary, nor did it receive the information it needed from the Defense Department.

Almost three decades after the first reports of contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act directed the Marine Corps to notify people who were impacted by the toxic water. However, many people who were at Camp Lejeune during the relevant time period report never having been told, even after Congress passed the law.

The public began to realize the full extent of the dangers within the last decade

The public began to realize the full extent of the dangers within the last decade, as Congressional hearings were held and documents were uncovered. One such document was found in 2009, and it found that over 1.1 million gallons of fuel leaked from underground storage tanks at the base. The Congressional hearings detailed the Marine Corps’ many years of missteps and their failure to take responsibility for the harm that they did to service members.

There were eight full years between the time when base officials first began to learn about the possibility of contamination until the time that they took conclusive action. Even though the Marine Corps finally asked the ATSDR to perform a health assessment in 1988, they never reported the fact that there was benzene in the water. Benzene is a known carcinogen. The Marine Corps had documents about this contamination that it hid on its own system that were not found until 2009. As the ATSDR was writing its report, a contractor had even mistakenly thrown out the entire file on the Camp Lejeune water contamination.

In the early part of the 2000s, the government began to investigate what happened and why

By the early part of the 2000s, the government began to investigate what happened and why. In 2007, the Government Accountability Office issued a comprehensive and scathing report that detailed the government’s missteps in exposing countless veterans to serious harm.

To this day, the Marine Corps has never given a suitable explanation for their lack of actions and the many people that they exposed to a higher risk of illness. Lives have been cut short, and families have been devastated. Finally, with the passage of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, families can finally recover financial compensation for what the government that they trusted did to them.