William R. Levesque
St. Petersburg Times Staff Writer
October 18, 2009
The story of what some scientists call the worst public drinking-water contamination in the nation’s history is told in thousands of Marine Corps, North Carolina and federal documents produced by the EPA investigation of Camp Lejeune water in the 1980s. That probe led to the camp being listed as a Superfund site in 1989. Camp Lejeune is a vital base to the Marines. It was founded in 1941 on North Carolina’s Atlantic coast and is one of the Corps’ busiest and largest bases. Like other military bases of the era, environmental stewardship there often lagged. The EPA called Lejeune a “major polluter” in the 1970s. The Corps says it disposed of wastes in those early years in ways consistent with common practices of the time. Records show the Marines dumped oil and industrial wastewater in storm drains. Potentially radioactive materials were buried, including carcasses of dogs used in testing. The camp even located a day care in a former malaria control shop where pesticides were mixed and stored.
One significant source of water contamination was a nearby dry-cleaning business that for years dumped into drains wastewater laden with chemicals used in dry cleaning. Those included tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, a suspected carcinogen. PCE, which has multiple industrial uses, and another solvent and suspected carcinogen were also used widely by Marines on base to clean machinery. The Marine Corps has maintained for two decades that the chemicals found in Camp Lejeune drinking water in the 1980s were not regulated. But that is only partly true. In the early 1980s, the EPA did not regulate organic solvents like PCE. But regulations by the Department of Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, in force at the base, barred harmful substances in water. And the dangers posed by organic solvents were well known. Other military bases in the 1970s closed wells tainted with solvents, including Willow Grove Naval Air Station and the Warminster Naval Air Warfare Center, both in Pennsylvania. And a regulation on the books at Camp Lejeune as early as 1974 shows the Corps knew the danger organic solvents posed. The rule outlined the safe disposal of hazardous wastes such as “organic solvents” and warned they could contaminate drinking water. The Marine Corps never released that 1974 regulation or other Navy rules governing drinking water to investigators who later reviewed water contamination at Camp Lejeune.
With tighter environmental regulations looming, military chemists began testing Camp Lejeune drinking water in earnest in October 1980. The base had dozens of water wells. A test that month detected trace levels of organic compounds, or solvents, in treated water. But for reasons unclear in records, the Marines say they didn’t get results until 1982. Not that it mattered. Camp Lejeune did nothing to investigate the source of contamination even after getting the results. Also in October 1980, an Army lab began testing treated water from Lejeune’s Hadnot Point water system for a potentially dangerous chemical by-product of chlorination. But other chemicals were interfering with the results. That was alarming because such interference is caused by organic compounds, chemists say. William Neal Jr., chief of laboratory services for the Army lab doing tests, wrote in an Oct. 30, 1980 report, “Water highly contaminated.” He mentioned “strong interference” by an organic chemical. Neal kept testing the water, and his warnings escalated.
- Dec. 18, 1980: “Heavy organic interference. You need to analyze for chlorinated organics.”
- Feb. 9, 1981: “You need to analyze for . . . organics.”
- March 9, 1981: “Water highly contaminated . . . (Solvents)!”
Camp Lejeune also began testing water in its rifle range area in 1981 to see if chemicals had drifted from a hazardous waste dump to nearby water wells. These tests involved a water system separate from the one generating Neal’s warnings. A rifle range water well was found to be contaminated with some of the same compounds seen elsewhere at Camp Lejeune. Three months later, engineers with oversight over drinking water at the base ordered the closure of one rifle range water well. The Corps did not respond to questions about why it closed one well with “unregulated” chemicals but kept others open. In 1982, Grainger Laboratories in Raleigh, N.C., was hired to test water at Camp Lejeune. The lab’s first test shocked chemists. They found “synthetic organic cleaning solvents” contaminating water from two of the base’s largest living areas, where thousands of Marines and family lived.
Mike Hargett, Grainger’s co-owner, told the Times that he and a base chemist urged the Marine officer with oversight over water issues to investigate and fix contamination. But Hargett said, “They would not recognize the hazard. They did not react.”
Grainger warnings about contamination persisted in report after report over the next two years. In August 1982, a Grainger report said raw water at a treatment plant was contaminated with solvents, which could only mean one thing: wells themselves were contaminated. A Marine spokesman said the report did not provide such confirmation, noting the Corps waited until 1984 to test wells directly because evidence of contamination was inconsistent.
Bruce Babson, the Grainger chemist testing base water, told the Times Grainger warnings were not well received by the Corps. “I was standing my ground from a lot of pressure from people who did not want the evidence in the record,” Babson said. “But I wouldn’t let it go.” In conjunction with the Navy, Camp Lejeune in April 1983 finished an initial study of hazardous waste sites on base that posed health risks, a project conducted at other bases around the nation. Copies went to state regulators. The report said nothing about tainted water.
Not long after, Camp Lejeune’s assistant chief of staff for facilities sent North Carolina environmental officials a review of base water testing. The summary said nothing of contamination. By then, Hargett was growing frustrated. His lab was warning the Corps repeatedly, to no avail. So he tipped off North Carolina officials that the Corps was holding back Grainger’s original reports showing contamination. The state demanded the originals. The Marines never sent them, records show, and the state eventually backed down. But things started to unravel for the Marine Corps in 1984. Chemists began testing wells directly. In July of that year, a test of one well detected a chemical found in gasoline at a level that was dangerously high and should have led to the immediate closure of the well, records show. The well remained in operation until November. By then, news of the contamination was made public. In late 1984 and 1985 a total of 10 wells would be closed because of contamination.
Four years had elapsed during which Marines, their spouses and their children drank, bathed and cooked with what scientists believe to be some of the most contaminated water in the United States. Federal scientists later estimated contamination dated to the 1950s. As news of tainted water became public, Camp Lejeune’s commanding general at the time, L.H. Buehl, reassured residents of a base subdivision where Marine families lived that contaminants in water were “minute (trace).” That wasn’t true. Levels of chemicals were among the highest ever seen in a large, public water system, scientists say. The organic solvent and degreaser trichloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen, was found at 1,400 parts per billion at a base hospital tap, 1,148 ppb at an elementary school, 18,900 ppb in a water well. Solvent levels in tap water were up to 280 times higher than what the EPA today considers safe.
With news of contamination now public, the EPA opened an inquiry. 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.
EPA officials said they were told by the Corps that it learned about contamination by unidentified pollutants in 1983 or 1984. In fact, they were identified earlier. And the chemicals were not unidentified. Linton also wrote that the Corps told the EPA that treated, potable water had not been contaminated when, in fact, it had. The Corps would not comment on this letter. And by 1988, neither the EPA nor the state had yet been told about what may have been one of the biggest threats to base water — storage tanks that had leaked thousands of gallons of fuel into the earth.
Later that year, A.P. Tokarz, a Marine lawyer based at Lejeune, wrote in a memo that he had been informed that 1,500 gallons of fuel were leaking each month and that any fix was still “out-years,” or years distant. He said the camp was legally required to tell the state, but hadn’t. “From an attorney’s perspective concerned with responding to potential litigation,” Tokarz wrote, “it appears patently unreasonable to wait until out-years to replace the tanks. Such delay will result in an indefensible waste of money, and a continuing potential threat to human health and the environment.”The fuel depot was a long-standing problem at Camp Lejeune. In 1979 up to 30,000 gallons of fuel had been spilled. The Corps notes it told the state and EPA about that leak in 1983. Finally, the fuel depot was shut down in 1989 and the state informed about leaks. Years later, the Corps told regulators that fuel wasn’t technically hazardous, a Marine document shows.
Excerpts from comments provided via e-mail by a Marine Corps spokesman, Capt. Brian Block
- “Three independent reviews have been conducted of the actions taken by the Marine Corps on this matter (2004 Independent Drinking Water Fact-Finding Panel chartered by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, an EPA Criminal Investigation Division investigation, and the 2005 Government Accountability Office review).
- “The Fact-Finding Panel determined that Camp Lejeune provided drinking water at a level of quality consistent with general water industry practices in light of the evolving regulatory requirements at the time.
- “The EPA concluded that there had been no violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, no conspiracy to withhold information, falsify data, or conceal evidence.
- “The GAO report describes efforts to identify and address the past contamination, activities resulting from concerns about possible adverse health effects and government actions related to the past contamination. . . .”
- “The Marine Corps has worked, is working, and will continue to work with those agencies who are seeking to find the answers that our Marines and our families deserve. . . .
- “I would hope that your story will point out that science has yet to find a link or association between exposure to the water at Camp Lejeune and illnesses among former residents — but also note that the Marine Corps has actively cooperated with ATSDR and the (National Research Council) as they have studied this issue.
- “I also hope that your article puts the actions of the base officials at Camp Lejeune in context with the prevailing environmental and regulatory framework that existed from 1957 until the early 1980s throughout America. I think it is safe to say that our understanding, not only of the effects of chemicals on human health, but also the way we treat our environment has progressed significantly since that time — and that now all bases in the Marine Corps, and Camp Lejeune in particular, have robust environmental protection programs and we continually look for ways to innovate.”
FAST FACTS: Web links about contamination at Camp Lejeune