History of Camp Lejeune Water Contamination

Water contamination at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune occurred from 1953 to 1987 in Jacksonville, North Carolina. It affected roughly one million people, with 500,000 claims filed to date. The victims are former United States Marine Corps (USMC) personnel and family members who lived on the base. 

At one point, testers found that the drinking water at the base contained various chemicals unfit for human consumption. The contamination was so severe that thousands reported developing cancer and other illnesses. These included those in the military service and their families. 

What made the problem controversial was the Corps’ perceived nonchalance toward contamination findings. For the victims, it would have helped if the Navy and Marine Corps had acknowledged the harm they suffered and taken accountability for it.  

If you or your family sustained injuries from exposure to Camp Jejeune’s contaminated water, The Personal Injury Center could help. We’ll match you up with a lawyer or law firm suitable for your case.

Key Takeaways
  • Camp Lejeune is among the Marine Corps’ largest and busiest bases in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
  • Water contamination at the base most probably started in the 1950s.
  • You can claim government benefits for your Camp Lejeune water contamination injuries.

A Background on Camp Lejeune 

Camp Lejeune is one of the largest and busiest military bases of the Marine Corps nationwide. It is located in Onslow County, North Carolina, close to the Hadnot Point neighborhood. The proximity to ports, extensive beaches, and forests make Lejeune a strategic base for Marine training.

The camp dates back to the 1940s when the Marines searched for a property to build another training base. Not long after, construction began on the 150,000-plus-acre estate, and the project wrapped up in 1942. 

Named after Marine Lieutenant General John A. Lejeune, the camp now had its own roads, buildings, and facilities. Camp Lejeune has six satellites, namely:

  • Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) New River
  • Camp Geiger
  • Stone Bay
  • Courthouse Bay
  • Camp Johnson
  • Greater Sandy Run Training Area

It also developed into a close-knit community of servicemen and their families until news of the contamination broke. 

Camp Lejeune continues to operate as a critical Marine base, home to a community of approximately 170,000 people. However, the water contamination issue continues to be the center of controversy. 

A Timeline of Discoveries, Denials, and Developments

The Camp Lejeune water contamination story is one of many twists and turns. Let’s review the timeline of what is considered one of America’s worst public water supply disasters of all time.

1970s: Poor environmental management at the camp 

In the 1970s, environmental issues were no urgent matter for public or private communities worldwide. Nonetheless, the Marines claimed prudence in their approach to waste disposal. It maintained its methods then were no different from standard practices now.  

Shockingly, records showed the opposite. The base had been dumping oil and industrial wastewater into storm drains. Buried in its grounds were suspiciously radioactive materials and dog carcasses used for animal testing. The daycare center was inside a malaria control facility that contained large amounts of pesticides.

Additionally, chemists discovered solvents in the base’s water supply, including the carcinogen tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene (PCE). The EPA said a nearby dry cleaning company that operated from 1964 to 2005 contaminated the camp’s water with PCE. The tests also revealed the presence of another toxic chemical used by the Marines to clean equipment.  

Interestingly, Camp Lejeune was not the only military base in America with solvent-tainted water then. The problem also existed at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station and Warminster Naval Air Warfare Center in Pennsylvania. However, the Navy shut down both bases after they confirmed the wells were contaminated. Camp Lejeune remained open.  

1980s: Refusal to acknowledge dangers 

In response to reports of unsafe water at Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps reasoned the identified contaminants were unregulated. Indeed, the EPA did not regulate the use of organic solvents like PCE at the time. However, people already knew of their hazards.

Furthermore, the Department of Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery had prohibited using harmful substances at the base much earlier. Authorities even issued warnings and guidelines on the safe disposal of these chemicals in 1974. It was clear the Corps already knew of their perils back then.  

  • 1980: Earnest water testing by military chemists and Army lab

Because of the disquiet slowly pervading the Camp Lejeune community, military chemists started examining the base’s wells in earnest. An Army lab started with the Hadnot Point water system, expecting to find a harmful chlorination by-product. 

Instead, they caught high levels of organic compounds and concluded that the water was severely contaminated. On top of that, they recommended testing the water for chlorinated organics and solvents.  

  • 1981: In-house testing of water at the rifle range area  

Checking for signs of contamination from a hazardous dumpsite nearby, the Corps tested water in the camp’s rifle range area. What they found were chemicals also discovered in other areas in the base. Note that this water supply was separate from that which the Army lab examined.  

In three months, engineers ordered a specific well in the range closed. However, the Corps would not address why the remaining contaminated wells remained open. 

  • 1982: Discovery of contaminated water by Grainger Laboratories 

Grainger Laboratories, an industrial supplies company in Raleigh, North Carolina, was commissioned to test the waters at Camp Lejeune. They could not believe what they discovered: organic cleaning solvents contaminating water in two of the camp’s largest living areas. 

Because they found raw water from a treatment plant contaminated, it followed that the wells were, too. A Grainger co-owner talked to the media and said the Corps was informed of the findings but gave no reaction. He also said the officer he spoke to did not acknowledge the danger.  

  • 1983: Release of questionable test findings and missing originals  

Around April, the Marines wrapped up an initial study of hazardous wastes at Camp Lejeune. Conducted with the Navy, the inquiry was part of a project that involved all U.S. military bases nationwide. In their reports to state regulatory bodies and environmental officials, they made no mention of contaminated water.

Frustrated by the Corps’ ignorance of the lab’s repeated warnings, Grainger’s co-owner told state officials the truth. According to the records, the state asked the Corps for the original reports but has yet to receive any to this day.

  • 1984: First well testing conducted by the Corps 

A few times, the Marines tested hazardous sites at the camp due to suspicions they contaminated the water system. However, they only started directly testing the wells themselves in 1984. Officers said they had to wait because previous reports of contamination were inconsistent.  

According to the Grainger chemist who tested water at the base, the Corps was unhappy with the lab’s findings. He also said he’d had to deal with pressure from the Marines, who apparently didn’t want the evidence on record. He added he was standing by his report. 

In July, in-house tests found one well contaminated with hazardous amounts of a chemical found in gasoline. While the finding warranted immediate closure, the well would remain open for another four months. At this time, news of the contamination had reached the public.  

  • 1985: Closure of ten wells at Camp Lejeune

After closing the first well with a gasoline chemical in 1984, the Marines shut down eight more the following year. By 1985, they had abandoned ten wells in total across Camp Lejeune. It was also the first time the public seemed to understand the gravity of the situation. 

Marine personnel and their families used contaminated water for years, and no one warned them about it. While people only knew of this public health problem in the 1980s, scientists believed it had existed since the 1950s.  

As news of unsafe water at the base circulated, the camp’s then-commanding general insisted the contaminants were in trace amounts. Scientists refuted this heavily, citing the discovery of the organic solvent PCE in the following quantities around the camp:  

  • 1,400 ppb (parts per billion) in a hospital tap
  • 1,148 ppb in an elementary school
  • 18,900 ppb in a water well    
  • 1986: The start of EPA inquiries 

According to an EPA official, Camp Lejeune sent them a letter about the base’s water contamination issue. It said the Marines only learned about the problem in 1983 or 1984, even as the records showed otherwise. They knew about it even before, and authorities had previously identified the contaminants as hazardous. 

The official also said the letter mentioned that treated, potable water at the camp was not contaminated. When asked for a comment, the Corps remained mum.  

  • 1988: Horror leaks from a fuel depot 

Besides the previously identified water contaminants at the camp, there was something bigger known to neither the EPA nor the state. Thousands of gallons of fuel from storage tanks were leaking into the soil. 

In a memo, a lawyer from the base wrote about the problem and the solution being too far off. He said it would take years to replace those tanks. That meant humans and the environment would be exposed to the dangers of fuel leaks as long. He also mentioned the tremendous waste of money that this would entail. 

The lawyer offered his expert perspective in anticipation of potential litigation. He said that while the camp had not reported the leaks to the state, it definitely should. 

The Hadnot Point fuel depot had been a problem for Camp Lejeune’s occupants since 1979. That year, as much as 30,000 gallons of fuel leaked into the soil. According to the Corps, they had told the state and the EPA of the leak in 1983. However, it took camp officials six more years to shut off the depot. 

Moving forward, the Corps issued a statement downplaying the dangers of the gasoline leaks. They said fuel was not technically hazardous.   

  • 1989: EPA adds Camp Lejeune to its National Priorities List  

The EPA added Camp Lejeune to its Superfund program’s National Priorities List on October 4, 1989. This action set off studies and probes into the health problems linked to exposure to the camp’s contaminated water. Behind these efforts was the Department of Health’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 

The ATSDR found that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) may be harmful to children in utero but not necessarily to adults. The agency also discovered no link between exposure and pregnancy. However, they determined that male newborns of exposed mothers were too tiny for their gestational age. All babies born to exposed mothers also tended to weigh lighter at birth. 

The ATSDR continues to study kids born at the camp from 1968 to 1985. Specifically, they are looking for links between VOCs in drinking water, childhood cancers, and birth defects. Also, they are examining associations between VOCs and childhood conditions, such as spina bifida, childhood leukemia, and anencephaly.

2000s: More inquiry findings and legislation 

The Camp Lejeune water contamination controversy gained steam by the turn of the century. The EPA released its findings, Congress got involved, and more and more victims came forward in pursuit of justice. Let’s go through the details.  

  • 2004: Creation of a drinking water fact-finding panel for Camp Lejeune 

The Marine Corps conducted an inquiry into the discovery of the camp’s water contamination issues. One finding was that the Marines responded appropriately to any information available. According to the fact-finding team, they found no reason to believe there was a contamination evidence coverup. However, they noted that the Navy, with its technical expertise, could have helped the Marines more in understanding the problem. 

  • 2005: Two EPA inquiry findings

The first inquiry focused on the EPA’s handling of responsibilities in addressing Camp Lejeune’s water problem. One finding was that the agency could have handled those responsibilities better than it did. Another was that some complaints forwarded to the EPA lacked merit or were beyond its scope of action.  

The second inquiry found that the EPA violated no laws despite being critical of the Marine Corps and Navy officials. The agency’s Criminal Investigation Division specifically conducted this probe. They also cleared the agency of suspicions of falsifying or mishandling related records or data. After reviewing the inquiry results, the Department of Justice ruled against prosecuting the case.  

This law was passed to provide funds to pay the victims and provide the necessary care. It also expands the transparency and accountability of the Department of Veterans Affairs to the people it serves.

  • 2011: Chiding of the Navy for its questionable behavior over the issue 

In a letter, five congressmen criticized the Navy for its consistently questionable attitude toward the Camp Lejeune issue. They alleged the Navy was misrepresenting a National Academy of the Sciences’ National Research Council report in 2009. 

The NASNRC had concluded that trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene had nothing to do with the illnesses of veterans and their families. The Navy also said the report cleared the camp of benzene exposure, which, according to the congressmen, was a lie. 

  • 2012:  Janey Ensminger Act 

The Janey Ensminger Act assures medical care for Camp Lejeune victims. However, qualifying for benefits requires that the person suffers from any of the following diseases or conditions:

  • Multiple myeloma
  • Breast cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Neurobehavioral effects
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Hepatic steatosis
  • Scleroderma
  • Myelodysplastic syndromes
  • Kidney cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Miscarriage
  • Female infertility
  • Leukemia
  • Renal toxicity
  • 2022: Camp Lejeune Justice Act 

In August 2022, President Biden signed the Camp Lejeune Justice Act as part of the Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022. Under this law, veterans and families who suffered medical issues from water contamination at the camp can claim legal compensation. 

Camp Lejeune Lawsuits Against the U.S. Government

Several lawsuits have so far been filed against the U.S. federal government over contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. As awareness about the health effects of exposure increased, more victims have come forward to seek compensation for their injuries. 

Early legal actions

On July 6, 2009, Laura Jones became the first person to sue the U.S. government over Camp Lejeune injuries. She and her husband, a Marine, moved to the base in 1980 when he was on active duty. They lived at the camp for the next three years. 

The U.S. Navy moved to dismiss Jones’ case, citing that the statute of limitations had run out. They also said regulations at that time did not include the contaminants chemists discovered in the base. However, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle did not accept the Navy’s arguments and proceeded with the case. 

Boyle explained the Navy limited the clients’ awareness of the contamination by withholding information and failing to issue a warning. He also said that summarily shutting the claims out of the courts would be a significant miscarriage of justice.  

Aside from Jones, one of the earliest to file a Camp Lejeune lawsuit was Retired Marine Joel P. Shribeg. In his January 2011 case, Shribeg said water contamination at Camp Lejeune caused his breast cancer. Shriberg served in the base from September 1957 through April 1959.  

Case consolidation  

More lawsuits were filed against the U.S. government over Camp Lejeune injuries. In 2011, ten were consolidated in a U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Georgia. In 2016, Marine Corps veterans and families filed 800 lawsuits under the Federal Tort Claims Act. 

The cases were consolidated into a single multidistrict litigation. In September 2022, the Department of the Navy said about 5,000 administrative cases came during the first month of the two-year window. However, the courts have yet to set trial dates thus far.

A few months have passed since legislators passed the Lejeune law. Biden refers to the bill as the “most significant law our nation has ever passed to help veterans who were exposed to toxic substances.”

Plaintiffs are still waiting for updates on how the claims will go in court, who will be the judge, and what rules will govern the trial. 

Who qualifies for VA benefits for Camp Lejeune water contamination?

The Department of Veterans Affairs provides Camp Lejeune benefits to reservists, guardsmen, and veterans. However, you must prove you served at the base for at least 30 days between August 1953 and December 1987. You can provide mail, tax records, and other documents to support this claim. 

Eligibility also requires you have at least one of eight presumptive health conditions, namely: 

  • Adult leukemia
  • Aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes
  • Bladder cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Parkinson’s disease

When necessary, proof of a presumptive condition requires medical records and other medical evidence, such as a doctor’s testimonial. You must also sit a compensation and pension exam and answer VA questions.

You need to prove you were honorably discharged from the service. Veteran family members and non-veteran employees who lived in the base during the period may also apply for benefits.

Did you know?

In September 2012, water at the Hadnot Point Water Treatment Plant showed signs of elemental mercury contamination. Experts believe water pressure meters were the source.

Let the Personal Injury Center Help You Find the Right Lawyer  

The story behind contaminated water at Camp Lejeune is both interesting and concerning. It’s amazing how base officials managed to sweep so many inquiry findings under the rug and escape scrutiny for decades. At the same time, one wonders whether a public water supply blunder of this magnitude can still happen today.  

In any case, victims can claim compensation for their Camp Lejeune injuries with the help of a competent lawyer. If you’re planning to file a lawsuit, whether for yourself or a family member, we can help. The Personal Injury Center has a network of experienced personal injury lawyers to provide suitable representation. 

Visit The Personal Injury Century if you need help or information about filing a lawsuit as a Camp Lejeune victim. We have the resources to help you understand your legal options. 

FAQs on the History of Camp Lejeune Water Contamination

The Environmental Management Division of Marine Corps Base claims the drinking water in Camp Lejeune is safe. It states that it routinely tests for more than 80 EPA-regulated chemicals and other contaminants like vinyl chloride. The aim is to meet or exceed the Safe Drinking Water Act testing requirements.

Technically, you do not need to hire a lawyer to file a Camp Lejeune lawsuit or any legal case. However, doing so can provide crucial benefits. A lawyer has the legal expertise required to determine the damages you are entitled to receive. A Camp Lejeune claim is particularly complex, given its long and convoluted history and extensive legislation. A legal expert's help will make a huge difference in attaining justice for your water contamination injuries.

Through a Camp Lejeune lawsuit, you can claim economic damages, such as healthcare costs and lost wages.   You can also recover non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering. Additionally, you can seek compensation for the funeral and burial expenses you incurred for a deceased loved one.