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A Legacy Of Pain And Redemption The Marine Corps has since acknowledged its failure to properly handle the hazardous wastes and has taken steps to improve its water safety protocols. However, for those who were affected by the contamination, the damage has already been done. . .

Story Of The Marine Corps’ Coverup

Lack Of Environmental Stewardship

Since its founding in 1941, Camp Lejeune has been one of the US Marines’ busiest and largest bases. Nestled on North Carolina’s Atlantic coast, the base is vital to the Corps’ operations.

However, like many other military bases of the era, environmental stewardship at Camp Lejeune has often lagged. The problems first came to light in the early 1980s when concerned parents whose children had been born with serious birth defects brought them to the attention of authorities.

An investigation revealed that a number of on-base facilities were contaminated with hazardous chemicals, including solvents and dry-cleaning fluids. The contamination affected both drinking water and soil at the base, exposing thousands of Marines and their families to potentially harmful toxins. While the full extent of the health effects is still not known, the problems at Camp Lejeune underscore the need for improved environmental management at all military bases.

Residents Complain

Residents of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina began complaining in the early 1980s about the taste and quality of their drinking water. Often foul-tasting and discolored, many people who used the water also experienced a range of health problems. The complaints led to an investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which found that the water was contaminated with a range of chemicals, including benzene and vinyl chloride.

The EPA’s investigation led to the camp being recorded as a Superfund site in 1989. Thousands of documents from the EPA investigation tell the story of what some experts call the worst public drinking-water contamination in US history.

In recent years, there has been increasing public concern over the quality of the water supply. One significant source of water contamination is waste from dry-cleaning businesses.

For years, these businesses dumped wastewater containing chemicals used in dry cleaning into drains. These chemicals include perchloroethylene, or PCE, a suspected carcinogen. PCE is used in multiple industrial processes, and another solvent and suspected carcinogen. The contamination of the water supply with these dangerous chemicals was a major public health concern. We need to take action to prevent further contamination and protect our families from the health risks posed by these chemicals.

Denials By The Marine Corps

For the past twenty years, the Marine Corps has denied that any chemicals present in Camp Lejeune’s drinking water in the 1980s were regulated. The statement is simply misleading.

In the early 1980s, the EPA did not regulate organic solvents like PCE. However, the Department of Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery had regulations in place that did not allow for harmful substances to be present in the water.

The problem was that those regulations were not followed. A 1982 memo from a senior naval medical officer warned that PCE levels in the base’s water supply “exceeded acceptable limits” and posed a risk to human health. But nothing was done to address the problem, and for years, Marines and their families continued to drink water contaminated with PCE and other toxins.

Indeed, as early as 1974, the Marine Corps was aware of the dangers posed by organic solvents and took steps to ensure their safe disposal. The yet failed to share this data with officials studying water pollution at Camp Lejeune. Consequently, the complete pollution wasn’t detected until years later. By that time, it was too late for the thousands of Marines and their relatives who had been exposed to the water containing hazardous materials.

In 1980, military chemists at Camp Lejeune began testing the base’s drinking water for environmental pollutants. The tests showed trace levels of organic compounds, or solvents, in the treated water. However, it is unclear why the Marines did not get the results of the tests until 1982. The delay in notification may have had serious consequences for the health of those who drank the contaminated water. Studies have linked exposure to the contaminated water to an increased risk of cancer and other serious health problems.

Even when Camp Lejeune received the results, they did nothing to investigate the source of contamination. Furthermore, in October 1980 an Army lab started testing water from Lejeune’s Hadnot Point water system for a by-product of chlorination that could be harmful.

But other chemicals were interfering with the results. That was alarming because such interference is caused by organic compounds, as chemists understand. In fact, William Neal Jr., the chief of laboratory services for the Army lab doing tests, wrote in an Oct. 30, 1980 report that the water was highly contaminated. He mentioned “strong interference” by an organic chemical. The more Neal tested the water, the more his warnings increased.

Grainger’s Warnings

In 1981, Camp Lejeune began testing its water in the rifle range area to see if any hazardous chemicals had drifted over from a nearby waste dump. These tests were done on a different water system from the one Neal warned us about. A rifle range water well was found to be contaminated with some of the same compounds seen elsewhere on the base. Three months after increased health concerns were raised about the water at Camp Lejeune, engineers ordered the closure of one rifle range well.

The Corps failed to answer questions regarding why it closed off one well that contained unregulated chemicals, but kept others open.

In 1982, the Marines at Camp Lejeune hired Grainger Laboratories in Raleigh, N.C., to test their water. The results from the first tests showed high levels of “synthetic organic cleaning solvents,” which can be harmful to human health. These contaminants were found in water from two of the base’s largest living areas, where thousands of Marines and family members lived.

In fact, Mike Hargett, one of the co-owners of Grainger, told the Times that he and a base chemist urged an investigating officer to look into and fix water contamination issues. But they would not recognize the hazard and failed to react.

Grainger continued to report contamination in their water supply over the next two years. In August of 1982, a report stated that raw water from a treatment plant was contaminated with solvents. This could only mean that the wells themselves were contaminated.

The Marine spokesman said the report did not provide confirmation that there was groundwater contamination at Camp Lejeune. He noted that the Corps only tested wells directly in 1984 because evidence of contamination was inconsistent. Bruce Babson, the chemist testing base water for Grainger, said that the company’s warnings were not well received by the Corps. He said that many people put pressure on him to not include the evidence.

In April 1983, Camp Lejeune in conjunction with the Navy completed an initial study of hazardous waste sites on base that posed health risks. This project was conducted at other bases around the nation and copies of the report went to state regulators. The report said nothing about tainted water.

The assistant chief of staff for facilities at Camp Lejeune sent a review of water testing to North Carolina environmental officials in which he said nothing of contamination. Hargett was growing frustrated because his lab was warning the Corps repeatedly that there was contamination, but they weren’t listening. He notified North Carolina officials that the Corps was holding back Grainger’s original reports showing contamination, and the state demanded to see them. However, the Marines never sent them and the state eventually left the issue alone.

Public Awareness

The Marine Corps’ problems started when chemists began testing wells for contamination in 1984. In July of that year, a test of one well found a chemical found in gasoline at a level that was dangerously high. However, the well remained in operation until November. By then, news of the contamination was made public. Because of contamination, 10 wells would be closed in late 1984 and early 1985.

Some of the water that Marines, their spouses and their children were drinking, bathing and cooking with was believed to be some of the most contaminated water in the United States. Scientists from the federal government estimated that the water had been contaminated all the way back to the 1950s. As news gradually spread of Marines and their families living with tainted water, L.H Buehl (the commanding general at Lejeune during this time) attempted to calm residents with the falsehood that contaminants were trace in quantity. However, the levels of chemicals found were among the highest seen by scientists in a large, public system. For instance, the suspected carcinogen trichloroethylene was found at 1,148 ppb at an elementary school, 1,400 parts per billion at a base hospital tap and 18,900 ppb in a water well. The level of solvent found in tap water was up to 280 times higher than what is regulated by the EPA.

The EPA opened an inquiry into the contamination after it was made public, but one of the Marines’ first overviews to the agency provided inaccurate information, records show. Arthur Linton, an EPA official in its Environmental Assessment Branch, recounted a meeting with Corps officials in a Feb. 3, 1986, letter he sent to Camp Lejeune.

The EPA officials stated that the Corps had told them that it learned about contamination from unidentified pollutants in 1983 or 1984. However, the pollutants had actually been identified earlier and the chemicals were not unidentified. Furthermore, Linton wrote that the Corps had told the EPA that treated, potable water had not been contaminated; however, in fact, it had. The Corps would not comment on this letter. By 1988, neither the EPA nor North Carolina had yet been told about potentially one of the gravest threats to base water – storage tanks that had leaked thousands of gallons of fuel into the ground.

Marine Lawyer’s Comments

In a memo, A.P. Tokarz, a Marine lawyer based at Lejeune, said that he had been informed that 1,500 gallons of fuel were leaking each month. He noted that any fix was still “out-years,” or years distant. Tokarz explained that although the camp is legally required to inform the state, they hadn’t done so yet.

He wrote, “[f]rom an attorney’s perspective concerned with responding to potential litigation, it appears patently unreasonable to wait until out-years to replace the tanks,” arguing the delay would be a continuing potential threat to human health and the environment.

The Camp Lejeune fuel depot had been a longstanding problem, with up to 30,000 gallons of fuel spilling in 1979. In 1983, the Corps noted that it had told the state and EPA about the leak. After the depot was shut down in 1989, the state discovered that there were leaks. The Corps later told regulators that fuel wasn’t technically hazardous, which is shown in a document from the Marines.

A Legacy Of Pain And Redemption

The Marine Corps has since acknowledged its failure to properly handle the hazardous wastes and has taken steps to improve its water safety protocols. However, for those who were affected by the contamination, the damage has already been done.

Only after years of litigation and public outcry did the Marine Corps finally admit that the contamination was real and take steps to clean up the water supply. As a result, scores of Marines and their families have been left with debilitating health problems, ranging from cancer to birth defects.

The Marine Corps will likely never regain the trust of those it has harmed through its negligence, but it can take action to try to make amends.