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The Complete History of Camp Lejeune Contaminated Water

The U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune was established in 1942. Exactly 40 years later, in 1982, the Marine Corps discovered the presence of specific volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the drinking water there. 

The VOCs were present in two out of the eight water treatment plants located on the base. The VOCs made the Camp Lejeune contaminated water unsafe to consume and could increase the likelihood of certain health conditions when ingested. 

Were you or someone you know stationed at Camp Lejeune between the 1950s and the 1980s? If so, any ailments or diseases you’re currently experiencing could be linked to this water. You could be eligible to receive settlement money to help cover the costs of your treatment and care. 

Today, we’re sharing a detailed background of how this issue started. We’ll also share how to file a claim to receive the compensation you deserve. 

Camp Lejeune Water Contamination: A Brief Overview

At the time of the analysis in 1982, researchers discovered several different VOCs present within the drinking water at Camp Lejeune. In addition to other contaminants, such as industrial solvents and benzene, the most notable ones include:

  • Trichloroethylene (TCE)
  • Tetrachloroethylene (PCE)
  • Vinyl chloride

These specific VOCs can increase the risk of certain diseases in anyone who comes into contact with them. This includes a heightened risk of the following types of cancer:

In addition, they can also lead to adverse birth outcomes as well as other health effects. In addition to active Marines and Naval personnel stationed at Camp Lejeune, other residents who could have come into contact with the contaminated water include infants, children, and civilian workers. In all, nearly one million veterans and civilians were potentially exposed to this contaminated water supply.

Locations of Primary Contaminants

Analysts identified the chemicals at two different locations: The Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point Water Treatment Plants. In addition, the Holcomb Boulevard Plant was affected, as it used the Hadnot Point plant as a water reserve in times of peak demand. These plants served the following populations:

  • Enlisted-family housing
  • Barracks for unmarried military service personnel
  • Administrative offices, schools, and recreational areas on the base

In addition, the Hadnot Point Water Treatment Plant also served an on-base hospital, as well as an adjacent industrial area. It also supplied water to residences located on the Holcomb Boulevard water system. It provided these services full-time through 1972, and then periodically after that period. 

Many of the exposed populations consisted of young families, as well as young adults of reproductive age.

It’s important to realize that this population was transient in nature. Some people lived at Camp Lejeune for years on long assignments, while others only stayed for a few months of training. Thus, some exposure was short-term, while others experienced repeat, long-term exposure to the contaminated water sources. 

Anyone affected by contaminated water at Camp Lejeune could qualify for a claim that could help them recover the cost of treatments. This applies whether you were on base for a short time or an extended period of time.

Thankfully, there are teams who specialize in this exact issue and are familiar with its history and background. It’s important to connect with an experienced attorney to discuss your symptoms and options. 

A Look at Water Treatment Plants on Base

To gauge how water contamination occurred at Camp Lejeune, it’s important to understand the basic water treatment process on base. The following water distribution systems have supplied or are currently supplying finished water at Camp Lejeune:

  • Tarawa Terrace
  • Hadnot Point
  • Holcomb Boulevard
  • Courthouse Bay
  • Rifle Range
  • Onslow Beach
  • Montford Point/Camp Johnson
  • New River

All plants functioned in the same way. Of these eight, three plants supplied a majority of the water to family housing units at the base and were identified as contaminated with VOCs. These plants include Tarawa Terrace, Hadnot Point, and Holcomb Boulevard.

The Groundwater Collection Process

At each location, water supply wells were responsible for collecting groundwater and pumping it to the plant. These wells operated on a cycle, which meant that only a specific subset of them was actively pumping water to the treatment plant at a specific point in time. 

Not all of the wells at each plant were contaminated. Rather, the contamination only occurred in a few wells. However, this was more than enough exposure to cause short-term and long-term health-related consequences. 

When the contaminated wells were in operation, they delivered their contaminated water to the treatment plant. Once it reached its destination, that water mixed with water from other wells. From there, the plant processed it and then distributed it on the base. 

Throughout the four decades in question, new wells were added to each plant. At the same time, others were temporarily shut down. Some were even closed for different reasons.

For that reason, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact concentrations of contaminants that passed from the wells to the water treatment plants, and the degree of exposure experienced on base. 

The Early 1980s: First Notice of Water Contamination 

The Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery issued detailed drinking water rules in 1963. These regulations banned any chemicals from being present in a military base’s water in concentrations that would jeopardize human health. 

Officials at Camp Lejeune were meant to enforce these rules at the base. In addition, they started testing water for chemical compounds called trihalomethanes (byproducts of chlorine) in 1980. That year, the EPA set limits on trihalomethanes produced during water treatment activities. 

Reports reveal that in 1980, an Army laboratory chief noted that some chemicals were showing up in the water tests.

His name was William Neal Jr., and he worked for the U.S. Army Environmental Hygiene Agency. Neal noted that the water at Hadnot Point was highly contaminated with halogenated hydrocarbons. These are chemical compounds that can include a variety of industrial organic compounds. 

Then, in 1982, the base hired a contractor from Raleigh, NC to conduct similar tests at Hadnot Point. The contractor, named Mike Hargett, was looking for trihalomethanes, which the EPA had limited two years earlier. The only issue?

Hargett couldn’t accurately test for trihalomethanes because the water was too full of organic solvents. These were the halogenated hydrocarbons Neal had noted in 1980. Hargett alarmed base officials about the contamination, but without defined standards in place for wastewater, little action resulted. 

Hargett continued to speak out about the issue through 1983. That year, Camp Lejeune even created a report for the EPA as required under its new Superfund program (discussed below). The report noted that there were no sites on base that posed an immediate threat to human health. 

However, as we will read, the issue was more severe and ongoing than anyone realized or was willing to admit. 

The Role of PCE: Located at Tarawa Terrace Water Treatment Plant

The official Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Study details were released by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), an agency within the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

These details revealed that the first source of water contamination occurred at the Tarawa Terrace Water Treatment Plant on base. This plant began operation in 1952 and shut down in March 1987. It served the Tarawa Terrace family housing units and the 
Knox trailer park.

In this specific plant, the most prevalent VOC was PCE, which is also known as perchloroethylene or tetrachloroethylene. This is a widely-used solvent that is introduced into the environment by human activity. 

This solvent is especially common in dry cleaning facilities. It’s also used as a degreaser and is included in some consumer products, such as shoe polish. There is no scientific evidence that PCE occurs or forms organically within the environment. Therefore, if it’s present in any type of environmental sample (such as groundwater, surface water, or soil), then the most probable cause is a spill or accidental release. 

Even at very low concentrations, PCE is toxic to humans. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Maximum Contaminant Level for PCE in water is only five parts per billion (ppb) or five micrograms per liter. 

Tracing the Source of PCE

This scientific theory held true in the Camp Lejeune case. Scientists were able to trace the source of the PCE contamination back to the inefficient waste disposal processes carried out at the nearby ABC One-House Cleaners. This was a dry cleaning firm located just off the highway from the base.

According to a court deposition, ABC One-House Cleaners used two to three 55-gallon drums of cleaning solvent per month and created about three gallons of waste per day. The solvent was used to clean military uniforms. 

Once the uniforms were cleaned, owners disposed of the remaining water. Some reports claimed that the owners would use a portion of the waste to fill potholes. Then, they would pour the rest of the contaminated water into the storm drains. 

The groundwater at Camp Lejeune became contaminated with PCE as a result of these practices.

At the time of the finding, the ATSDR reconstructed historical contaminant concentrations using a unique data analysis and modeling technique. This allowed the agency to more closely understand the concentration of PCE that could have been present in the drinking water on base. The ATSDR based its historical reconstruction on several data sources, including:

  • An investigation into the operations of ABC One-House Cleaners
  • An investigation into on-base operations
  • An investigation into the operation of water supply wells and water treatment plants on base
  • Detailed water monitoring data
  • Data on groundwater flow rates
  • Other relevant data 

Maximum Contaminant Levels

Using these sources, the agency developed a chronology of events that outlined how and when the contamination occurred. It created groundwater models to reconstruct how PCE could have migrated ABC One-House Cleaners to the water supply wells that served Tarawa Terrace.

Then, it developed mixing models to estimate monthly concentrations of PCE (including degradation products) that went to the base from 1957 to 1985. 

By following this approach, the ATSDR estimated that concentrations of PCE in the drinking water from the Tarawa Terrace water treatment plant at Camp Lejeune exceed the EPA Maximum Contaminant Level limits of five ppb. Specifically, it measured at 215 ppb in February 1985.

In all, the primary contamination period lasted from November 1957 to February 1987, though the most contaminated wells were shut down in February 1985. 

However, some studies trace the source of the contamination back to as early as 1953. This is the year when dry-cleaning operations commenced at ABC One-House Cleaners. 

Symptoms of PCE Exposure

As you’ll read, there were other contaminants and VOCs discovered in other water sources around Camp Lejeune during this time period. Yet, before we move on to the next discovery, it’s important to take a closer look at the dangers of ingesting PCE. 

While most people are exposed to PCE through inhalation or skin contact, drinking water is a primary form of contamination through ingestion. It can also be present in contaminated food or accidentally ingested particles, such as soil.

The amount of PCE ingested can affect the adverse health outcomes experienced. The period of exposure also plays a role. In chronic exposures, you may experience:

  • Skin irritations
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Liver damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Menstrual issues 

In acute exposure of more than 100 ppm, PCE can lead to central nervous damage. If levels exceed 1,500 ppm, it can cause respiratory depression, which could lead to death. As a reasonably anticipated carcinogen, researchers have found that PCE causes tumors in mice.

This means it could potentially lead to certain cancers in humans, such as:

  • Lung cancers
  • Colon-rectum cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Esophageal cancer

The Role of TCE: Located at the Hadnot Point Water Treatment Plant

The Tarawa Terrace Water Treatment Plant wasn’t the only water treatment plant in which researchers discovered known contaminants. They also found VOCs at the Hadnot Point Water Treatment Plant. This plant began operation in 1943.

It served the mainside barracks and family housing at Hospital Point. It also served family housing at the following locations until June 1972:

  • Midway Park
  • Paradise Point
  • Berkeley Manor

While this source of contamination was not as severe, it still had a negative impact on the water quality at Camp Lejeune. 

Here, the primary offender wasn’t PCE, but trichloroethylene, or TCE. This is another chemical that is frequently used as a solvent. Specifically, it helps degrease metal parts during the manufacturing of many consumer products. 

Commercially, you can find TCE in products such as:

  • Wood finishes
  • Paint removers
  • Glues and adhesives
  • Stain removers

In addition, it can also be used as an anesthetic, fumigant, solvent extractant, and dry-cleaning agent. In May 1982, the ATSDR discovered maximum TCE levels in the drinking water at Hadnot Point that reached 1,400 ppb.

If TCE is spilled or dumped onto the ground, it can quickly contaminate the soil and groundwater. When this happens, the chemical moves down through the soil and into the underground water. From there, it can pollute both private and public drinking water. 

Like PCE, the EPA has set a Maximum Contaminant Level of five ppb for TCE in drinking water.

The ATSDR identifies that TCE is the most frequently-reported organic containment identified in groundwater. In fact, the agency states that between 9% and 34% of drinking water supply sources have some level of TCE contamination.

However, most municipal water treatment facilities maintain strict compliance with the Maximum Contaminant Level, which is five ppb. 

Tracing the Course of TCE

The PCE contamination was traced directly back to the waste disposal processes at ABC One-House Cleaners. However, the source of TCE contamination wasn’t as singular and direct.

Rather, the ATSDR determined that multiple different sources contributed to the TCE exposure at Camp Lejeune. These include:

  • On-base spills at nearby industrial sites
  • Leaks from underground storage tanks
  • Leaks from underground drum dumps
  • Transformer storage lot
  • Industrial fly-ash dump
  • Open storage pit
  • Fire training area
  • Former on-base dry cleaning facility
  • Designated liquid-disposal area
  • Former burn dump
  • Fuel-tank sludge area
  • The original site of the base dump

These leaks most likely originated at the various dumps and storage lots located inside and around the military base. Once waste was generated at these sites, workers would discard it into empty forests, roads, waterways, and fields. They would also create makeshift dumps for the remaining excess. 

From there, the toxic waste traveled downward toward sea level, carried by rains and thunderstorms. Once there, it entered water wells, where it traveled even further to reach the military barracks, houses, and trailers. 

While analysts are unsure of the exact year that the contamination began, this particular water treatment plant began operation in 1943.

It’s important to note that researchers discovered contaminated wells in both the Tarawa Terrace Water Treatment Plant and the Hadnot Point Water Treatment Plant in the early 1980s. As a result, they took swift measures to close them as soon as possible.

Wells at both locations were closed between November 1984 and May 1985. All operations at the Tarawa Terrace Water Treatment Plant ceased in 1987.

Unlike Tarawa Terrace, researchers have not been able to conduct a historical reconstruction or groundwater modeling technique at Hadnot Point. This is due to the sheer number of different contaminants and sources. 

Pinpointing the Various Contamination Sources

To determine the extent of the contamination at Hadnot Point and characterize probable exposures, researchers relied on various sources. These included:

  • Descriptions of the source areas
  • Laboratory reports
  • Documented supply water samples
  • Results of monitoring on groundwater wells installed during remedial investigations

With these resources, they discovered that while TCE was the primary contaminant at Hadnot Point, it was not the only one. Other chemicals present in the findings had the potential to contaminate the nearby water supply. These chemicals include:

  • PCE
  • Vinyl chloride
  • 1,1–Dichloroethene (DCE)
  • 1,2-DCE
  • Methylene chloride
  • Benzene
  • Toulene 

A Chemical Breakdown

Dichloroethene is a chemical used in solvents and chemical mixtures. In some cases, it can break down into vinyl chloride, which is believed to be even more toxic. You can ingest these chemicals from drinking contaminated tap water, or by breathing vapors that are released while washing dishes, cooking, or baking. 

Exposure to DCE at low levels can affect your nervous system, leading to effects that range from weakness and drowsiness to nausea and loss of consciousness. At high levels, it can have adverse effects on your liver, blood, and immune system.

When both 1,1-DCE and 1,2-DCE are present at the same time, research shows that long-term exposure can increase the risk of certain bodily changes. These include changes to your blood, liver, immune system, and nervous system. 

In addition to PCE, vinyl chloride, and DCE, levels of benzene were also present in the drinking water at Hadnot Point. A known carcinogen, benzene occurs naturally as a part of crude oil and gasoline.

Like TCE and PCE, the EPA has set the Maximum Contaminant Level of benzene in drinking water at five ppb. In 1984, tests by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command revealed that one of the wells at Camp Lejeune contained benzene levels that measured at 380 ppb

Benzene can have a detrimental effect on your bone marrow. It can also cause your red blood cell count to decrease, which can lead to anemia. In addition, long-term exposure to the chemical can increase your risk of leukemia, which is cancer of the blood-forming organs. 

The other two chemicals present in the wastewater report, methylene chloride and toluene, are also degreasers and solvents. Exposure to these chemicals can lead to dizziness, tiredness, and fatigue in the short term and could also catalyze long-term damage to your liver and kidney. 

Symptoms of TCE Exposure

Of all the contaminants found at the Hadnot Point Water Treatment Plant, TCE levels were the highest and most concentrated. 

Most of the adverse effects of TCE exposure are traced back to accidentally inhaling the substance. This exposure can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term). In both cases, TCE can affect your central nervous system (CNS), leading to symptoms that include:

  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Headaches
  • Facial numbness
  • Weakness and fatigue

If TCE enters drinking water, it can cause adverse effects on the CNS. In addition, it can also cause damage to your kidneys and liver, as well as your immune system and endocrine system. 

Contamination at Holcomb Boulevard Water Treatment Plant

Though it likely occurred on a smaller level than the other two plants, researchers did discover contamination at the Holcomb Boulevard Water Treatment Plant. 

This plant began operation in June 1972. It served family housing at the following locations on base:

  • Midway Park
  • Paradise Point
  • Berkeley Manor
  • Watkins Village
  • Tarawa Terrace (after March 1987)

Most of the wells at the Holcomb Boulevard Water Treatment were not contaminated. However, this system was integral to the issue as a whole. This is because the Holcomb Boulevard plant used the Hadnot Point plant as a sort of backup system when its own wells were not capable of keeping up with demand. 

Specifically, contaminated water from the Hadnot Point Water Treatment Plant was used intermittently to supplement the Holcomb Boulevard Water Treatment Plant during periods of high demand between 1972 and 1985. These periods usually occurred during the spring and summer months, when the wells were drier and the demand levels peaked. 

During this time, there was also a brief period when the Holcomb Boulevard Water Treatment Plant was completely closed down. This occurred from January 27, 1985, to February 7, 1985. During that period, contaminated water from the Hadnot Point Water Treatment Plant was used to fully supply the Holcomb Boulevard drinking water system.

Therefore, residents and personnel who used or consumed drinking water during that period received water from Hadnot Point. As described, this water contained high amounts of TCE during that timeframe.

1989: Camp Lejeune Becomes a Superfund Site

The EPA’s Superfund program is responsible for cleaning up some of the most contaminated lands in the nation. Representatives from the program also respond to environmental emergencies, as well as oil spills and natural disasters. The formal name for the program is the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), and Congress enacted it into law on December 11, 1980.

In a broad sense, the law creates a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries. It also gives Federal authorities the right to respond directly if companies release or threaten to release hazardous substances that may endanger the environment or public health. The tax collected under CERCLA goes toward a trust fund.

The program uses money in the trust fund to clean up abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites, called Superfund sites. In short, these are sites where workers dump hazardous waste. There are thousands of designated sites located all over the country and include areas such as:

  • Manufacturing facilities
  • Processing plants
  • Mining sites

In most cases, companies responsible for creating hazardous waste will take measures to clean it up. If they’re unwilling to do so or can’t afford the cleanup effort, then the government will step in. 

The EPA placed Camp Lejeune on the Superfund program’s National Priorities List (NPL) on October 4, 1989. In February 1991, the EPA joined forces with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) to create a Federal Facility Agreement (FFA).

This agreement outlined all of the site cleanup activities that were to take place within the base.

The U.S. Navy is the leading CERCLA agency and is responsible for leading the charge. To date, the program is investigating and remediating 26 Operable Units at Camp Lejeune. Let’s take a look at some of the most prolific past and current actions. 

From 1992 to 2001

For the first nine years, the program focused on removing and disposing of contaminated soils at the identified water treatment plants. Workers also disposed of the following:

  • Drums
  • Above-ground storage tanks
  • Underground storage tanks
  • Waste liquids
  • Batteries
  • Dense, non-aqueous phase liquid (DNAPL)

A DNAPL is a type of material used in industrial and commercial processing. It contains myriad contaminants that may slowly change over time as they dissolve into groundwater. Examples include:

  • Chlorinated solvents
  • Coal tar
  • Heavy petroleum 
  • Pesticides/grain fumigants 

In addition to removing the contaminants, the Navy also conducted other activities to address and remove groundwater contamination. This includes installing a groundwater treatment system, as well as a bio-treatment system to correct soil contamination. 

From 2001 to 2009

Over the next eight years, the Navy focused on areas that contained high levels of DNAPL. It sought to treat the areas using electrical resistance heating. The Navy performed a treatability study in an attempt to extract the contamination from the soil. 

During this study, workers removed around 48,000 pounds of VOCs from the soils around Camp Lejeune. This includes cleanup efforts at multiple sites using various different remedies that included:

  • Groundwater monitoring
  • Institutional controls
  • Using oxidants to break apart contaminants 

During this time, the Navy placed institutional controls on certain parts of the sites. This was to prohibit intrusive activities that would impede the program. It also restricted groundwater use and non-industrial land use at these locations. 

From 2010 to 2015

In this five-year period, the Navy performed three removal actions at different sites. It also installed strategically located treatment systems around the base. At some sites, the best remedy was to establish institutional controls that would limit exposure to soil contamination. 

From 2016 to Present

The Navy continues to monitor Camp Lejeune as a Superfund site. Since 2016, it has established more institutional controls around the base. In 2019, it set forth to directly address groundwater contamination associated with the dry-cleaning facility on base. 

The solution was to create three distinct groundwater treatment areas using different treatment technologies. These technologies include:

  • Enhanced reductive dechlorination
  • Chemical oxidation
  • Treating the edge of the groundwater plume with a bio-barrier

Implementation started in 2020 and is set to continue through 2022. The government is still conducting pilot studies and treatability studies to optimize groundwater treatment approaches across the military base. Every five years, the EPA reviews cleanup actions at each Superfund site to make sure that all efforts are protecting people and environmental resources. 

Were You Affected by Camp Lejeune Contaminated Water?

Did you or someone you know live or work on Camp Lejeune during the period of water contamination? 

Our attorney specializes in personal injury and has direct experience with Camp Lejeune contaminated water claims. Please download our helpful guide, which includes a checklist of the steps to follow when you’re ready to file a claim for yourself or a family member.

We can discuss your options and help you get the compensation you deserve. We’re only a call away and we’re here to help. Contact us today to learn more and get started. 

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