Camp Lejeune is a North Carolina military base that has housed millions of Marines since WWII. The base has since become infamous after hundreds of veterans and their families developed cancer due to exposure to toxic chemicals in the water.
How did Camp Lejeune Water Contamination begin?
In 1982 the United States Marine Corps discovered volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the drinking water provided by 2 of the water treatment plants on Camp Lejeune. The Environmental Protection Agency describes VOCs as,
“Typically, they are industrial solvents, such as trichloroethylene; fuel oxygenates, such as methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE); or by-products produced by chlorination in water treatment, such as chloroform. VOCs often comprise petroleum fuels, hydraulic fluids, paint thinners, and dry-cleaning agents. VOCs are common ground-water contaminants that can (EPA) reported that the presence of elevated VOC concentrations in drinking water may be a concern to human health because some VOCs are carcinogens and may adversely affect the liver, kidneys, spleen, stomach, as well as the nervous, circulatory, reproductive, immune, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems.” (EPA.gov)
The major substances found were perchloroethylene or PCE, an organic chemical that is not naturally found in the environment but put there by human activity. It is a widely used solvent, especially in dry cleaning activities. One of the primary sources near the base of PCE was a dry-cleaning business that dumped wastewater from dry cleaning into drains. PCE was also used throughout the base to clean machinery.
Studies have revealed a correlation between PCE exposure and several types of cancers, including:
- Bladder cancer
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Multiple myeloma
- Rectal cancer
- Lung cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Breast cancer
- Liver cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Prostate cancer
The Marine corps argued for years that the chemicals found in the drinking water in the 1980s were not regulated by the EPA. This was partially true because the EPA in the 1980s did not regulate organic solvents such as PCE. Still, there were regulations in place by the Department of the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery at Camp LeJeune, which barred harmful substances in the water. The base had regulations in their books as early as 1974 at Camp Lejeune outlining some of the dangers of organic solvents. Safe disposal was outlined and warned of these organic solvents and drinking water contamination.
New Environmental Regulations
As the 1980s approached, so did tighter regulations on chemicals and waste management, which forced the military into action, so they began testing at Lejeune in October 1980. One of the first tests performed showed traces of the organic solvents in water that had been treated, but the Marines say they did not see the results until 1982. Regardless of when they got the information, they did not investigate the source of contamination after receiving the results.
In 1980, Lejeune’s Hadnot Point system water had tests performed on its treated water for a dangerous chemical by-product of chlorination. They could not get conclusive results for their tests because other chemicals that were present in the treated water were interfering with their results. Interference like that is caused by organic compounds. The chief of laboratory services for the Army lab, William Neal jr., wrote in an October 30, 1980, report, “Water highly contaminated.” He mentioned “strong interference” by an organic chemical. Neal kept testing the water, and his warnings escalated.
- 18, 1980: “Heavy organic interference. You need to analyze chlorinated organics.”
- 9, 1981: “You need to analyze for . . . organics.”
- March 9, 1981: “Water highly contaminated . . . (Solvents)!
In 1981 they tested wells that were near the rifle range, which was near a hazardous waste dump. These tests were from a separate water system than the one above that William Neal mentioned in his warning memos. The same contaminants were found in the well that had been discovered in other water systems at Camp Lejeune. They closed the well near the rifle range but kept others open.
Grainger, a lab in Raleigh, N.C., was hired to come in and test the water at the base, and the test results were shocking. Synthetic organic cleaning solvents contaminated 2 of the base’s largest living area’s water that supplied marines and their family members with drinking water. Raleigh’s lab owner told the Times that he spoke with an officer in charge of the water issues to investigate and fix the contamination. He said they did not react and would not recognize the hazard.
The lab from Raleigh sent repeated reports for the next two years to urge them to act. A report in 1982 stated that raw water at the treatment plant was contaminated with organic solvents, which meant that the wells were contaminated. In 1983 Camp Lejeune, working with the Navy, completed an initial study of hazardous waste sites that presented health risks and sent it to state regulators. The report contained no information about tainted water.
With officials at Camp Lejeune consistently ignoring their warnings for the last few years, lab workers from the Grainger Raleigh N.C. lab tipped off North Carolina state officials that the Marine Corps was holding back the lab reports of water contamination from the state. The state requested originals from Camp Lejeune, which they never sent to state officials, who eventually gave up and backed down.
Beginning of the End
After four years of ignoring outside lab reports from Grainger and their own chemist’s reports about the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, chemists began testing wells directly in 1984. In July, one of the wells tested had a chemical found in gasoline at dangerously elevated levels. The well should have been closed immediately but remained open until November. Over that next year, ten wells would be closed because of contamination.
Scientists believed that this was some of the most contaminated water in the United States, and Marines and their families had been drinking and bathing in it for years. As the news became public, base commanders reassured residents that lived in one of the base subdivisions those contaminants were only present in trace amounts, which was not true. The levels of these chemicals found in the water were the highest ever seen in a public water system.
TCE, or trichloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen, was found at 1,400 parts per billion at a base hospital tap and 1,148 ppb at an elementary school, and 18,900 ppb in the water well. The tap water level was over 280 times what the EPA measures as acceptable and safe by today’s standards.
Responses and Actions
Before 2010 the U.S. Navy and VA denied any links between veterans who were suffering from illnesses and VOC exposure on Camp Lejeune. The VA denied all claims filed by veterans for disability based on illnesses related to water contamination.
In 2010 USMC veteran Paul Buckley was awarded 100% disability benefits because the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) determined his incurable cancer was caused by exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune in the 1980s. This was believed to be the first time the government admitted liability.
Multi-District Litigation: Pretrial Consolidation, 2011–present
The ten lawsuits that followed in 2011 were consolidated in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Georgia. An issue arose regarding these lawsuits as to whether they would follow the North Carolina (Camp Lejeune location) statute of repose (10 years) or the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) guidelines for tort suits.
In June of 2014, the United States Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit Court’s decision on CTS Corp. v. Waldburger et al. It held that CERCLA law’s preemption of a state’s statute of limitation for personal injury or property damage claims does not apply to a state’s rules of repose. Not every state has such a statute on its books, but for states like North Carolina, this may provide a shield for defendants and an additional hurdle for plaintiffs.
In response to the Fourth Circuits decision, the North Carolina state legislature, on June 20th, 2014, amended the state’s statute of repose and created a new exception, reviving groundwater contamination suits that were pending when the Waldburger decision was announced.
In October 2014, the Eleventh Circuit responded and held that the amendment made the change retroactive. Still, the change could not be applied against the United States government because the United States cannot be divested of vested rights such as the availability of defense under state law. (Bryant v. the United States 11t Circuit 2014)
As we can see from the above court actions, these pending lawsuits needed the support of government officials to overturn the statute of repose in North Carolina to move forward with compensation for the veterans and their families affected by the contaminated water.
Addressing this issue, Rep. Mark Takano and other house members drafted the Honoring Our PACT Act. The PACT Act, if passed, will address the North Carolina statute of repose (10 years) and allow it to be bypassed. The bill has significant support in both the U.S. House and Senate. In early July 2022, it passed the House of Representatives but is stalled in the Senate as an amendment to a tax provision in the bill is debated.
On July 26th, 2022, the Senate made progress on the final draft and passage of the revised version of the PACT Act. The debate session lasted the prior day regarding several proposed amendments, none of which were accepted for the final, revised version. Senate majority leaders filed a motion to stop the debate and bring the bill to vote. There is a chance the PACT act could pass before the end of the month.
Who Qualifies to File a Camp Lejeune Lawsuit?
Veterans and their families who lived at Camp Lejeune between January 1, 1957, and December 31, 1987, for over 30 days may be eligible for compensation if they later suffered a qualifying injury or disease. If you have a deceased or living family member affected by the Camp Lejeune water contamination, contact our skilled attorneys at Charles Boyk Law Offices. Our veterans should not have been exposed to these toxic chemicals, and we will fight to bring your family the compensation they deserve.
Contact our firm for a free case evaluation if you or someone you know were stationed at Camp Lejune between January 1, 1957, and December 31, 1987 and then later suffered health issues.