The water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina was contaminated by harmful chemicals from 1953 until 1987, according to the National Research Council (NRC). Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) known as trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE) were discovered in Camp Lejeune’s water in 1982.
While the federal government failed to prevent the drinking water from being contaminated and failed to detect the contamination for almost 30 years, failings didn’t stop once the contamination was detected.
The detection of the VOCs in 1982 merely started a long series of events that finally culminated with the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 becoming law on August 10, 2022. The law allows those sickened by the contaminated water to seek financial compensation in court through a Camp Lejeune lawsuit for any harm done to them by the water.
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 being signed into law was long overdue, as a series of government failures led to an almost 70-year delay between the contamination first occurring and many veterans finally being given an opportunity by the government to seek justice for the contamination.
Water Contamination at Camp Lejeune
According to the NRC, water contamination at Camp Lejeune is estimated to have started occurring in 1953, the year when ABC One-Hour Cleaners, an off-base dry cleaner, started dry cleaning operations. Two water systems at Camp Lejeune were contaminated by VOCs: the Tarawa Terrace system and the Hadnot Point system.
The primary contaminant in the Tarawa Terrace system was PCE, which was used, spilled, and improperly disposed of by ABC One-Hour Cleaners.
The Hadnot Point system, on the other hand, had been contaminated with multiple chemicals, including PCE and TCE, from multiple sources, such as:
- An industrial area
- A drum dump
- A transformer storage lot
- An industrial fly ash dump
- An open storage pit
- A former fire training area
- A former on-base dry cleaning site
- A liquids disposal area
- A former burn dump
- A fuel-tank sludge area
- An original base dump site
The NRC, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), and a Veteran’s Administration (VA) committee have linked TCE and PCE to multiple adverse health conditions, such as:
- Multiple myeloma
- Adult leukemia
- Myelodysplastic syndromes
- Parkinson’s disease
However, while the water contamination began in 1953, it wasn’t until 1980 when water testing at Camp Lejeune would lead to the contamination being discovered began.
The Discovery of the Contamination
New Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules led to the water at Camp Lejeune being tested for chemicals known as trihalomethanes in 1980. According to documents, an Army laboratory chief, William Neal Jr., tested the Hadnot Point system’s water that year.
On October 31, 1980, Neal Jr. wrote the following at the bottom of the testing results: “Water is highly contaminated with low molecular weight halogenated hydrocarbons.” Neal Jr. wrote three more warnings after that:
- In January 1981, Neal Jr. wrote, “Heavy organic interference… you need to analyze.”
- In February 1981, Neal Jr. wrote, “You need to analyze for chlorinated organics.”
- In March 1981, Neal Jr. wrote, “Water is highly contaminated with other chlorinated hydrocarbons (solvents)!”
Chlorinated organic solvents are also known as VOCs, the group of chemicals to which PCE and TCE belong.
At the time, it was the stance of the EPA that TCE and PCE could cause liver damage and kidney damage, disrupt the central nervous system, and should be kept out of public drinking water.
A Series of Failures
Despite Neal Jr.’s warnings, according to documents, the water at Camp Lejeune was not tested again until 1982. In an internal memo, Col. J.T. Marshall wrote that it was his opinion that the Army’s lab results’ accuracy was questionable, suggesting that the results be de-emphasized in a potential on-base hazards report to the EPA.
May 1982: A Failure to Inform
It wasn’t until April 1982 when Grainger Laboratories, a private contractor out of Raleigh, North Carolina, was contracted by the United States Military Corps (USMC) to run another test for trihalomethanes, this time on the water at Tarawa Terrace as well as Hadnot Point.
Mike Hargett, Grainger Laboratories’ co-owner, discovered TCE and PCE in the water and warned Elizabeth Betz, the base chemist at Camp Lejeune, about the contamination over the phone on May 6, 1982. Betz passed on this notification upwards through the chain of command, according to documents, and was summoned in order to brief a lieutenant colonel and a colonel about the water testing a week later.
Neither the colonel nor the lieutenant colonel know about the contamination at the time of the briefing, according to a memo Betz wrote, demonstrating the chain of command had not notified them. According to the memo, Betz failed to inform them during the briefing.
While the memo doesn’t state why Betz failed to inform the colonel or lieutenant colonel during the briefing, a report commissioned by the USMC and published in 2004 states that Betz told outside reviewers she failed to understand the significance of the health threat that the contamination posed.
July 1982: A Failure to Discuss
Grainger Laboratories conducted follow-up testing in July 1982, which again found TCE and PCE in the water at Hadnot Point and Tarawa Terrace. One of the tests in May found 1,400 ppb of TCE. The EPA’s recommendation was 75 ppb regarding long-term exposure.
At one point, Hargett met with Betz and the deputy director of base utilities and told them that people should not be drinking the water. According to Hargett, the deputy director of base utilities “did not want to discuss it.”
“I was amazed at how unimportant this discussion was for him,” Hargett said.
August 1982: A Failure to Acknowledge
In August 1982, Grainger Laboratories wrote to Maj. Gen. D.J. Fulham, the commanding general at Camp Lejeune, and warned him of the contamination. However, Fulham was told by Betz one week later in a memo that the amounts of chemicals in the water were within EPA recommended levels, referring to the test which found 1,400 ppb of TCE as an unexplained anomaly.
The North Carolina Water Supply Branch was not notified about the water contamination in 1982, according to documents.
Hargett warned USMC officials about the contamination additional times in December 1982, March 1983, and September 1983, documents show.
1983: A Failure to Report
The USMC provided the EPA with a report in spring 1983 regarding the cleanup of hazardous waste at Camp Lejeune. This report stated that no on-base locations posed “an immediate threat to human health” and failed to mention any water contamination in the Hadnot Point or Tarawa Terrace systems.
North Carolina’s water supply agency asked officials at Camp Lejeune for the Grainger Laboratories water testing lab reports in June 1983, but USMC officials declined to provide these reports and, in December 1983, scaled back Grainger’s water testing.
1984-85: A Failure to React Quickly
In July 1984, a company contracted by the EPA found TCE, PCE, and benzene in the water at Camp Lejeune. This led to one of the contaminated wells finally being shut down in November 1984 and the rest of the contaminated wells being shut down in early 1985, over four years after Neal Jr. discovered water contamination and about three years after Hargett discovered TCE and PCE in the water.
Federal scientists ended up recommending studies to find out how widespread exposure to the water contamination was at Camp Lejeune. However, the USMC and the Navy responded by saying that these studies were unwarranted and not likely to lead to reliable results.
Pentagon and Military Failures
The CDC ended up investigating the contamination anyways, and the Pentagon responded by withholding data and funds, stating that giving info about who lived at Camp Lejeune while the camp’s water was contaminated would be a violation of privacy laws.
Studies ended up demonstrating that the water contamination at Camp Lejuene could lead to a wide variety of health problems, and the military responded by attempting to discredit the studies, arguing that it was impossible to prove links between the water contamination and health problems such as cancer.
VA Benefits Failures
Those exposed to the contaminated water obtained a partial win in 2012 when the Janey Ensminger Act was passed. This act provided VA benefits to those who lived at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days from 1953 to 1987 and ended up contracting specific illnesses.
However, the benefits didn’t cover all possible losses connected to the water contamination, such as wrongful death damages, and hundreds of victims of the contaminated water filed lawsuits against the U.S. government seeking to recover financial compensation for damages sustained as a result of the water contamination.
Federal Court Failures
Additionally, a 2014 United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit ruling in Bryant v. United States ruled that North Carolina’s statute of repose contained no latent disease exception.
These two decisions effectively barred the Camp Lejeune lawsuits against the federal government based on North Carolina’s statute of repose, leading to the lawsuits being dismissed in 2016.
Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 was signed into law in August 2022 as part of the larger Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022. The act rendered North Carolina’s statute of repose inapplicable to lawsuits regarding Camp Lejeune’s water contamination.
Who Qualifies to File a Lawsuit?
The act states that those harmed by the water may file lawsuits seeking compensation for harm caused by the water contamination as long as claims aren’t filed after the latter of:
- Two years after the act was signed into law or 180 days after a claim is denied by 28 U.S. Code § 2675
- In order to qualify to file a lawsuit under the act, one must have been harmed by the water and have been exposed to the water, including in utero exposure, for at least 30 days between August 1, 1953, and December 31, 1987.
Service members, family members of service members, and civilians all qualify to file water contamination lawsuits under the act.
Claims filed under the act must provide evidence that the water contamination was at least as likely to have caused any illness as unlikely.
Any illness that can be proven to be at least as likely caused by the water contamination as not can qualify for a Camp Lejeune lawsuit under the act.
What Are the Known Water Contamination Symptoms?
The chemicals that were found in Camp Lejeune’s water have been linked with a number of symptoms and cancers, including:
- Kidney cancer
- Testicular cancer
- Bladder cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Breast cancer
- Multiple myeloma
- Rectal cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
- Hodgkin lymphoma
- Liver cancer
- Mononuclear cell leukemia
- Lung cancer
The chemicals have also been linked with:
- Parkinson’s disease
- Infant neural tube defects
- Kidney toxicity
- Immunologic effects
- Effects on male fertility
- Liver toxicity
- Adverse changes in nervous system measurements
- Adverse effects on offspring
- Myelodysplastic syndromes
- Immune system effects
- Renal toxicity
- Hepatic steatosis (fatty liver)
- Female infertility
- Neurobehavioral effects
- Small for gestational age infants
- Preterm birth
- Kidney disease
- Reduced mean birth weight
- Term low birth weight
- Bipolar disorder
- Vision deficits in color discrimination and contrast sensitivity
Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Lawsuits
Those who have been harmed by the contaminated water may qualify for financial compensation for multiple types of damages in a Camp Lejeune lawsuit, including:
- Medical bills
- Lost wages
- Loss of earning capacity
- Pain and suffering
- Wrongful death
The experienced toxic exposure lawyers at Nadrich & Cohen can help you obtain financial compensation and justice from the United States government if you or a loved one were harmed by the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune.
We are veterans advocates and have spent over a decade successfully resolving lawsuits for veterans and civilian defense contractors who have been sickened by exposure to toxic chemicals.
We have handled defense base act claims, as well as claims that involved benzene exposure on ships. Our staff has family members who have been stationed at Camp Lejeune, as well as family members who have fought in Vietnam, World War II, and the Persian Gulf.
Contact Nadrich & Cohen Today
Call us, text us from this page, or contact us online today for a free consultation if you or someone you love became ill after exposure to Camp Lejeune’s contaminated water. Let us fight for you and help you obtain the justice and financial compensation you deserve. We won’t charge a fee until and unless we obtain financial compensation for you.