How Did Camp Lejeune Water Get Contaminated?

How Did Camp Lejeune Water Get Contaminated?

Multiple sources likely contributed to the leaching of toxic chemicals into the groundwater at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune from 1953 to 1987, including spills at industrial sites, leaking storage tanks and drums, and improper dumping from an off-base dry cleaner.

The chemicals, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), made their way into nearby water treatment plants that supplied drinking water to the base, including

  • enlisted-family housing
  • barracks for unmarried service personnel
  • the base hospital
  • base administrative offices
  • schools
  • recreational areas

Many of the chemicals in Camp Lejeune water have been linked to serious health hazards, including cancers, neurological disorders, infertility, and birth defects.


Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Timeline

Camp Lejeune was established in 1942 in Jacksonville, along the North Carolina coastline. It became one of the Marine Corps’ largest and busiest bases. The 246-square-mile military training facility covers 14 miles of beach for amphibious assault training. Its location between two deep-water ports allows for fast deployments.

Decades ago, the Marine Corps disposed of waste in ways consistent with common practices at the time — by dumping oil and industrial wastewater in storm drains and burying potentially radioactive materials into the ground.

In the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called Camp Lejeune a “major polluter” for continuing to carry out these practices despite the dangers they posed to humans. A regulation in the books at Camp Lejeune dating back to 1974 showed the Corps knew that the solvents were dangerous and could contaminate drinking water.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, with tighter environmental regulations on the horizon, that chemists took a closer look at the water at Camp Lejeune.

Eight water treatment plants supplied water to dozens of wells on the base. Testing by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in 1982 found the presence of two different industrial solvents in two of the plants — the Tarawa Terrace and the Hadnot Point water treatment plants. In some of the wells, levels of solvents were at 1,400 parts per billion — 280 times higher than the maximum level now recommended by the EPA.

Both contaminated water systems were closed from November 1984 to May 1985, and the Tarawa Terrace water treatment plant was completely shuttered in 1987. Two years later, the area became an EPA Superfund site to prioritize the cleanup of hazardous waste on the land.

The water testing agency, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), was created by Congress in 1980 to assess health risks at the most toxic waste sites in the country. Research on the Camp Lejeune cancer and mortality study began in 2015.

In 2014, ATSDR issued a Position on the Water Contamination at Camp Lejeune. It reads:

 It is ATSDR’s position that past exposures from the 1950s through February 1985 to trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), vinyl chloride, and other contaminants in the drinking water at the Camp Lejeune likely increased the risk of cancers (kidney, multiple myeloma, leukemias, and others), adverse birth outcomes, and other adverse health effects of residents (including infants and children), civilian workers, Marines and Naval personnel at Camp Lejeune.

It’s unknown when the water became contaminated. However, the U.S. government acknowledges that from 1953 to 1987, more than a million Marines, their family members, and civilians who lived or worked on the base were exposed to hazardous chemicals in the water they drank, cooked, and bathed in.

What Was in the Water at Camp Lejeune?

The water at Camp Lejeune was found to contain dangerous chemicals called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Some of the VOCs that were contaminating the water supply at Camp Lejeune include:

  • Trichloroethylene (TCE): a chemical used as a metal degreaser and to make refrigerants
  • Perchloroethylene (PCE): a synthetic chemical widely used for dry-cleaning fabrics and metal-degreasing
  • Vinyl chloride (VC): a toxic gas used to produce polyvinyl chloride and other commercial polymers
  • Benzene: a chemical used to manufacture plastics, detergents, pesticides, and other chemicals

Effects of Exposure to Contaminated Water at Camp Lejeune Affects 

According to the ATSDR, a person’s risk of becoming ill from water contaminated with VOCs depends on factors such as:

  • When you were exposed (as an infant or child, during pregnancy, as an adult),
  • How much you were exposed to,
  • How long you were exposed,
  • How you were exposed (breathing, drinking, skin contact), and
  • What your personal traits and habits are.

As part of its 2017 assessment, ATSDR assessed the average marine’s exposure to the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune:

A marine in training at Camp Lejeune consumes an estimated 6 liters of water per day for three days per week and 3 liters a day the rest of the week. Under warm weather conditions, a marine may consume between 1 and 2 quarts of water per hour and shower twice a day. It is likely during training, the water supplied in the field came from the Hadnot Point water system with both measured and estimated levels of TCE and PCE substantially higher than their MCLs (maximum contaminant levels).

ATSDR continues to investigate the health effects of the contaminants in Camp Lejeune water on humans and links this exposure to several cancers, neurological disorders, fertility issues, and birth defects.

One study by ATSDR is the Cancer Incidence Study, which seeks to determine whether residential or workplace exposures to drinking water contaminants at Camp Lejeune are associated with increased risk of specific cancers in military personnel and civilian employees.

The study involves Marine and Naval personnel who began service from 1975 to 1985 and were stationed at Camp Lejeune anytime during this period, as well as civilian employees who worked at the base anytime during October 1972 and December 1985. These servicemembers will be compared with a control group from Camp Pendleton. There was no contaminated water at Camp Pendleton.

These individuals and this time frame were identified because personnel data necessary to determine base location are not available before these years. However, the findings from this study will also apply to people who were exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune before the study years.

Researchers didn’t contact study participants. Rather, they got information on cancer rates through the federal and state cancer registries.

According to a November 2023 Reuters report, the findings were submitted in April 2023, but ATSDR has yet to release it. According to an epidemiologist familiar with the research, the study increases the number of cancers linked to the drinking water on the base. According to the article, “The findings also provide the strongest evidence to date that the contaminated water caused cancer.”

Berry-Law Team

Benefits Available for Veterans and Others Affected by Camp Lejeune Water Contamination

Since 2012, the Veterans Administration has provided cost-free health care for Veterans with certain conditions who served at least 30 days of active duty at Camp Lejeune during the 34-year qualifying period. Family members of Veterans who lived on the base during this time are also eligible for reimbursement for out-of-pocket medical expenses related to the same health conditions.

Qualifying health conditions include:

  • Esophageal cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Renal toxicity
  • Female infertility
  • Scleroderma
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Lung cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Myelodysplastic syndromes
  • Hepatic steatosis
  • Miscarriage
  • Neurobehavioral effects, such as Parkinson’s disease

The VA also presumes service connection to qualifying Veterans with the following conditions:

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

The Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022, signed into law on August 10, 2022, also cleared the way for Veterans, family members, and civilian workers who were exposed to Camp Lejeune contaminated water and developed certain health conditions to seek compensation for the harm they suffered. They can now file a Camp Lejeune lawsuit against the U.S. government seeking compensation for medical bills, lost income and wages, and pain and suffering damages.

Contact an Experienced VA Disability Lawyer at Berry Law to Help with Your Camp Lejeune Contaminated Water Claim

For nearly 35 years, military Veterans and their families stationed at Camp Lejeune were exposed to toxic chemicals in the drinking water on the base. However, healthcare benefits have only been available for the illnesses caused by exposure to the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune since 2012.

Now, those affected may be eligible to seek compensation for their medical bills, lost earnings, and pain and suffering under the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022. But time is running out. Camp Lejeune lawsuits must be filed by August 10, 2024. 

If you or a loved one served at Camp Lejeune from 1953 to 1987 and were diagnosed with cancer or another qualifying disease, the VA disability lawyers at Berry Law can help you get the compensation you deserve. Contact us at today (888)682-0751 or through our online form to discuss your case.

John S. Berry, , Attorney for VA Disability
John S. Berry, , VA Disability Lawyer
Berry Law

The attorneys at Berry Law are dedicated to helping injured Veterans. With extensive experience working with VA disability claims, Berry Law can help you with your disability appeals.

This material is for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the Firm and the reader, and does not constitute legal advice. Legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and the contents of this blog are not a substitute for legal counsel.

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