Warnings about Camp Lejeune's tainted water unheeded for years
WASHINGTON — For 30 years, thousands of Marines and their family members at Camp Lejeune, N.C., drank, cooked with and bathed in water that was laced with dangerous chemicals, but when outside contractors began raising questions about the toxic water, documents show, base officials rebuffed them and ignored the warnings or ordered more tests.
The worst-offending wells finally were shut down in November 1984, more than four years after the first warnings. In that time, more than 2,500 babies may have been carried in utero on the base or born at Camp Lejeune hospital, according to estimates by federal scientists.
Strung together, thousands of pages of documents tell the story of how the contamination was allowed to continue. They show that Camp Lejeune officials had been told consistently that something very foul flowed through the base's pipes.
The Marines say they closed the wells within days of learning details about the contamination.
"The kind part of me wants to say (the Marines) took a while to figure it out," Mike Hargett, an outside contractor who raised questions about the toxic water in 1982 and 1983, said in an interview with McClatchy Newspapers. "The unkind part says somebody was sloppy and negligent," said Hargett, who now lives in Rutherfordton, N.C., about an hour west of Charlotte.
The Marine Corps says it's difficult to know what might or might not have been done in response to the warnings, because the record of thousands of related documents is exhaustive but not necessarily complete.
"Just because it's not in the record doesn't mean something wasn't done," Marines spokesman Capt. Brian Block said.
The water contamination has launched years of scientific inquiry, spurred a congressional investigation and, many think, sickened thousands of Marines and their family members.
There may be more to be learned.
Last month, federal scientists sent the Department of the Navy and the Marine Corps a letter indicating that the military still hasn't turned over all documentation. The Marines deny withholding documents and say they've done their best to make sure scientists have what they need.
The scientists, working for the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, are trying to find out whether the toxic water is connected to ailments suffered by thousands of former Marines and their family members.
In February, a congressional oversight subcommittee led by Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., began its own investigation.
The congressional investigation follows a report by McClatchy showing that benzene — a component of fuel and a known cancer-causing agent — might have been much more responsible for the contamination than had been known previously.
A new document shows that as much as 1.1 million gallons of fuel might have been spilled into Camp Lejeune's groundwater over the years. As many as a million people are estimated to have been exposed to the water from 1957 to the mid-'80s.
The Department of the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery had issued drinking water rules in 1963. They banned any chemicals from a base's water in concentrations that would be hazardous to human health.
In 1980, Camp Lejeune began testing for chemical compounds called trihalomethanes, byproducts of chlorine produced during water treatment, in response to new Environmental Protection Agency rules.
Documents show that the first warnings about Camp Lejeune came that year, when an Army laboratory chief began scrawling notes about chemicals that were showing up in the routine water tests.
The lab chief, William Neal Jr., who was working for the U.S. Army Environmental Hygiene Agency, tested the water at Hadnot Point, an area with wells serving the base hospital, some barracks and officers' housing, and close to a massive underground fuel tank storage farm.
On Oct. 31, 1980, at the bottom of a one-page table of testing results, the lab chief wrote: "Water is highly contaminated with low molecular weight halogenated hydrocarbons," chemical compounds that can include many industrial organic compounds.
More warnings followed.
In January 1981, he wrote: "Heavy organic interference. ... You need to analyze."
In February 1981: "You need to analyze for chlorinated organics."
In March 1981: "Water is highly contaminated with other chlorinated hydrocarbons (solvents)!"
One of the samples came from a tap in the hospital's emergency room.
Chlorinated organic solvents, also known as volatile organic chemicals, or VOCs, permeated the water. They include trichloroethylene, known as TCE, and tetrachloroethylene, known as perclene or PCE. Both are used as industrial cleaners.
The Environmental Protection Agency thought that both chemicals caused liver and kidney damage and disrupted the central nervous system. The EPA had issued recommendations in 1979 and 1980 on keeping the substances out of public drinking water, although it didn't have federal standards set in law at the time.
However, documents indicate that after 1981 there was no further testing in response to the lab chief's warnings.
In fact, more than a year later, the assistant chief of staff facilities, Col. J.T. Marshall, wrote in an internal memo that he thought the accuracy of Army laboratory results was questionable. Marshall suggested that the results of the trihalomethane testing be de-emphasized in a sweeping report to the EPA about potential hazards on the base.
The Army lab chief's notes ended, but documents show that months later, another scientist began raising concerns about the water.
In April 1982, a Raleigh, N.C.-based contractor was hired to conduct the same routine tests for trihalomethanes, the chlorine byproducts, again at Hadnot Point and the housing community of Tarawa Terrace.
Mike Hargett, a co-owner of Grainger Laboratories, couldn't do the tests he wanted to do. Organic solvents were interfering with his readings. They were the same poisons that the Army laboratory chief had warned about.
Alarmed, Hargett began issuing repeated warnings to base officials that the wells appeared to be pumping out contaminated water.
"If that water had been the effluent of a wastewater treatment plant, that plant would have been in violation and fined," Hargett told McClatchy.
No such standards yet existed for drinking water, but the EPA had made it clear that the chemicals posed a threat.
Hargett first picked up the phone in his Raleigh office on May 6, 1982, and called Lejeune's base chemist, Elizabeth Betz, according to documents. He told her about the TCE and the PCE.
Betz passed the news up the chain of command, documents show. A week later, she was summoned to brief a colonel and a lieutenant colonel about the routine water testing.
According to a memo she wrote after the briefing, neither officer appeared to have been told about the poisons in the water, meaning that the chain of command hadn't reached to their level.
"I didn't inform them," Betz wrote. The memo doesn't indicate why not.
In a report that the Marines commissioned two decades later, however, outside reviewers say Betz told them that she didn't realize the significance of the contamination's threat to public health. The review was published in 2004.
In July 1982, Grainger Laboratories conducted follow-up tests to the earlier warnings. The lab again found TCE and PCE contamination in water samples from Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point.
Reports that Grainger sent to Camp Lejeune show that one test of water drawn in May — in response to his warning to Betz — indicated TCE levels of 1,400 parts per billion. The recommendation from the EPA was 75 parts per billion for long-term exposure.
Hargett said he was growing increasingly frustrated. He remembers standing at one of the wellheads and advising Betz to turn off at least one of the wells at Hadnot Point.
He went with Betz to meet the lieutenant colonel who was the deputy director of base utilities.
"I basically said, 'This is a problem with your water,' " Hargett recalled. " 'People should not be drinking this water.' "
The scientists spent less than five minutes in front of the Marine officer's desk, Hargett recalled.
"He did not want to discuss it," he said. "I was amazed at how unimportant this discussion was for him."
That August, Grainger Laboratories wrote to the base's commanding general, Maj. Gen. D.J. Fulham. Grainger chemist Bruce Babson warned that the base's water system contained dangerous levels of poison, and that it appeared to be coming from water in the well field.
"These appear to be at high levels and hence more important from a health standpoint than the total trihalomethane content," Babson wrote.
A week later, however, Betz, the base chemist, told Fulham in a memo that on average, the chemical amounts fell within the EPA's recommended levels for what a human could tolerate.
She called one test, the TCE levels at 1,400 parts per billion, an unexplained anomaly, documents show.
Block, the Marines spokesman, said he couldn't say why more wasn't done at the time.
"We sitting here today are not going to say what should or should not have been done 30 years ago," he said.
Documents indicate that in 1982, the North Carolina Water Supply Branch hadn't been told of the dangerous chemicals in the water, even though it was the regulatory agency that was responsible for Lejeune's water safety.
Hargett warned the military about the contamination again in December 1982, according to documents. And again in March 1983. And in September 1983.
"That's the disheartening part of this," Hargett said recently. "They continued to distribute the water for others to drink."
In the spring of 1983, the Marines gave the EPA a report — required in preparation for the new Superfund law — on cleaning up significant hazardous-waste sites at Camp Lejeune. The report said that no sites on base "pose an immediate threat to human health."
No mention was made of poisons in the Tarawa Terrace or Hadnot Point water systems.
Sometime around then, Hargett tipped state environmental officials to take a closer look at Lejeune.
Also, by mid-June 1983, as part of its ongoing monitoring of the base's trihalomethane levels, North Carolina's water supply agency asked Lejeune to supply Grainger Labs' original reports. Those reports would have shown the TCE and PCE levels and, Hargett thinks, might have led to a state investigation.
Records indicate the Marines didn't turn over the lab reports.
Newly revealed Navy documents from a 1997 meeting about the contamination show that the water also might have been laced with benzene, a known carcinogen and a component of fuel.
At the time, however, Hargett didn't know it.
Benzene is a slightly different compound, and it wouldn't have shown up in Grainger Lab's routine tests, he said.
Even without the benzene, knowing what the Marines did about the TCE and PCE, should the military have shut down the wells?
"Yes. Absolutely," Hargett said.
In December 1983, Lejeune officials asked to reduce the frequency of their routine water tests for Hadnot Point.
In January 1984, the chief of North Carolina's water supply agency agreed.
Six months later, a contractor who'd been hired as part of the EPA Superfund review of hazardous sites found benzene in Camp Lejeune's water, along with TCE and PCE.
In November 1984, the first of the contaminated wells finally was shut off.
Marine spokesman Block said this year that base officials had shut down the wells within a week after they learned the details of the contamination from the July 1984 test.
Records show the Marines first notified the state of the contamination in a phone call in December 1984.
Lejeune shut the other contaminated wells in early 1985.
News reports at the time quoted a base spokesman downplaying the TCE and PCE contamination. The EPA, he said, doesn't "mandate" unacceptable levels of the chemicals, meaning that the Marines hadn't broken any laws.