CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — A simple test could have alerted officials that the drinking water at Camp Lejeune was contaminated, long before authorities determined that as many as a million Marines and their families were exposed to a witch’s brew of cancer-causing chemicals.
But no one responsible for the lab at the base can recall that the procedure — mandated by the Navy — was ever conducted.
The U.S. Marine Corps maintains that the carbon chloroform extract (CCE) test would not have uncovered the carcinogens that fouled the southeastern North Carolina base’s water system from at least the mid-1950s until wells were capped in the mid-1980s. But experts say even this “relatively primitive” test — required by Navy health directives as early as 1963 — would have told officials that something was terribly wrong beneath Lejeune’s sandy soil.
A just-released study from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry cited a February 1985 level for trichloroethylene of 18,900 parts per billion in one Lejeune drinking water well — nearly 4,000 times today’s maximum allowed limit of 5 ppb. Given those kinds of numbers, environmental engineer Marco Kaltofen said even a testing method as inadequate as CCE should have raised some red flags with a “careful analyst.”
“That’s knock-your-socks-off level — even back then,” said Kaltofen, who worked on the Love Canal case in upstate New York, where drums of buried chemical waste leaked toxins into a local water system. “You could have smelled it.”
Biochemist Michael Hargett agrees that CCE, while imperfect, would have been enough to prompt more specific testing in what is now recognized as the worst documented case of drinking-water contamination in the nation’s history.
“I consider it disingenuous of the Corps to say, ‘Well, it wouldn’t have meant anything,”’ said Hargett, co-owner of the private lab that tried to sound the alarm about the contamination in 1982. “The levels of chlorinated solvent that we discovered ... they would have gotten something that said, ‘Whoops. I’ve got a problem.’ They didn’t do that.”
Trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, benzene and other toxic chemicals leeched into ground water from a poorly maintained fuel depot and indiscriminate dumping on the base, as well as from an off-base dry cleaner.
Nearly three decades after the first drinking-water wells were closed, victims are still awaiting a final federal health assessment — the original 1997 report having been withdrawn because faulty or incomplete data. Results of a long-delayed study on birth defects and childhood cancers were only submitted for publication in late April.