A United States Marine Corps base in Onslow County, North Carolina was the site of “the worst example of water contamination this country has ever seen.” Camp Lejeune is the second largest Marine base in the United States. Marines and their families lived on base for short periods of time learning necessary skills, since it was an amphibious training base. Then, they would leave to be stationed elsewhere. Little did they know that they were being exposed to toxic water in their temporary homes.
From the 1950s through the 1980s, people living or working at Camp Lejeune were exposed to contaminated drinking water from multiple sites on base. For instance, prior to 1986, water coming from two treatment plants—Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point—contained volatile organic compounds. The contamination primarily included perchloroethylene (PCE), trichloroethylene (TCE), dichloroethylene (DCE), vinyl chloride, and benzene. Throughout the base, the drinking water contained toxic chemicals at levels 240 to 3,400 times higher than what safety standards permit.
And, the result of the exposure to those contaminants was tragic. Drinking that contaminated water likely increased victims’ risk of multiple types of cancer, including leukemia, breast cancer, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It also put victims at risk for other diseases and negative health effects, including Parkinson’s disease and miscarriages.
We may never know exactly how much suffering Camp Lejeune’s water contamination caused. Most people stationed at the base were there for a short time. In the critical timeframe, an unknown number of Marines, family members, including children, and civilian workers passed through Camp Lejeune, but estimates suggest that as many as one million people consumed the contaminated water. Many tragic stories have emerged in the aftermath of Camp Lejeune, including stories of impacts on veterans, spouses, and children.
And, the government’s inadequate response to the contamination only enhanced the tragedy. As early as 1980, base officials knew that the drinking water was full of a variety of known and suspected carcinogens, given the informal shorthand “methyl-ethyl death.” However, groundwater wells were not shut off until the fall of 1984 and the winter of 1985. And, even though the base became a Superfund site in 1989, the extent of Camp Lejeune’s contamination still remains unknown.
Historical monitoring at Camp Lejeune highlights another shortcoming: the true amount of benzene, a carcinogen, on site was omitted on reports from contractors. In 1984, scientists found benzene levels that far exceeded the federal safety limits. Then, in 1991, another contractor warned the Navy about the benzene and the possible health hazards. However, a 1992 contractor’s final report to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease did not mention the benzene at all. But, the benzene was still in the Camp Lejeune wells, reappearing in later reports at the extremely high levels of 3,490 parts per billion. While military representatives deny purposely omitting information on benzene, there are many recorded instances where the military knew of pollution and failed to remedy it. For example, according to a 1988 memo, the Navy knew that a fuel farm was leaking 1,500 gallons of fuel, riddled with toxic contaminants, each month. Yet, the Navy did nothing to stop that contamination.
The United States legal system also failed the victims of Camp Lejeune. In 2014, the Supreme Court in CTS v. Waldburger, a case that did not concern Camp Lejeune but another instance of TCE pollution, examined whether North Carolina’s or the federal Superfund law’s statute of limitations was the proper way to measure when victims of contamination could bring a lawsuit. North Carolina’s statute of limitations gave victims 10 years after the last culpable act to bring a lawsuit, a much more restrictive window than the Superfund law, which allows plaintiffs to bring a legal claim once they discover that pollution made them ill. The Court ruled that North Carolina’s restrictive statute of limitations prevailed, limiting how long victims of pollution have to sue those who caused their illnesses. This outcome had clear implications for the victims of Camp Lejeune, who, in some cases, would have had to file lawsuits well before even being diagnosed.
However, the Obama Administration sided with the polluter in CTS. And, just hours after the Supreme Court’s CTS decision the Obama Administration’s Department of Justice made their move. Thirteen Camp Lejeune victims had filed lawsuits against the Department of Defense, and those claims had been consolidated into one before a federal appeals court. The appeal had been on hold, pending what happened in CTS. Almost immediately after the ruling, the Department of Justice filed a motion to have Camp Lejeune victims’ claims dismissed based on the CTS decision. This move by the Administration contradicted President Obama’s promise to stand with the Camp Lejeune victims and demonstrated a disregard for those harmed by the contamination. Even though the North Carolina Legislature had amended its statute of limitations to allow for Camp Lejeune victims’ claims, the appellate court sided with the Administration, holding the amended statute of limitations should not apply retroactively. The Northern District of Georgia later dismissed those claims.
Further, in 2019, under the Trump Administration, the Navy decided to deny over 4,400 civil claims for tort benefits related to Camp Lejeune. It had been considering the Camp Lejeune contamination for 20 years. The Navy determined that it was immune from the victims’ administrative claims, citing the Federal Tort Claims Act, sovereign immunity, and the Feres doctrine. Additionally, it determined that the timeframe in which the family members at Camp Lejeune could have sued the government for their own cancers had expired. Thus, many victims were left with limited options to obtain compensation for their injuries.
Currently, the remaining option for many Camp Lejeune victims is to apply for disability and health benefits. But, some have reported that benefits claims are being delayed. For example, between 2014 and 2017, only 463 of 2,519 family member claims were approved. However, in 2017, the Department of Veteran Affairs added to the list of conditions that are presumed to be caused by the Camp Lejeune contamination, meaning that victims do not need to prove their medical condition was linked to the water contamination, as long as their health condition is on the list. Thus, the type of benefits available to a victim depend on the type of health condition the victim is experiencing. There are also different benefits depending on whether the victim is a veteran or a family member.
The government’s handling of Camp Lejeune also raises concerns about a multitude of other contaminated military bases. A total of 175 military locations are known to have high levels of fluorinated compounds (PFAS)—linked to cancer and other health problems—in the water. Based on the Department of Defense’s treatment of Camp Lejeune’s contamination and the victims, there remains little hope for those who have been exposed at other bases and those that might be unknowingly drinking contaminated water now. It is the government’s turn to step up and protect those who stepped up to protect this country, starting with the victims of Camp Lejeune.
Dayna Smith and Shawn Collins contributed to this blog.