The Environmental Disaster at Camp Lejeune and the Shocking Stories of Marines and Their Families

By Jonathan Sharp

Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune has a remarkable history. Home of Marine Expeditionary Forces in Readiness, Camp Lejeune was established just before the United States entered World War II. In December 1942, the base was named after Lt. Gen. John Archer Lejeune, the first Marine Corps officer to hold an Army divisional command, who had died a month earlier.

For more than fifty years, Camp Lejeune has had a critical mission – to maintain combat-ready units for expeditionary deployment in service for the United States, and every generation to serve has fulfilled that mission with courage and dignity. But, Camp Lejeune who is one of the most valuable locations in the country for amphibious assault training, has a dark chapter in its history that has only recently come to light.

Between the 1950s-1980s, people living at Camp Lejeune have been exposed to health-hazardous contaminants from leaking storage tanks and disposal of toxic materials. There is sufficient reliable scientific evidence to establish a strong association between exposure to these contaminants during military service and the development of many types of cancer later on.

Many Soldiers and Their Families Were Exposed to Chemicals That Contained High Levels of Toxicity

Established to provide amphibious training for troops headed to the war overseas, Camp Lejeune was the largest Marine Corps base in the United States. Historically, Camp Lejeune served as a third boot camp for the Marines, in addition to the Parris Island, South Carolina, and San Diego, California bases. The 244-square-mile military training complex incorporates the New River and 11 miles of beaches along the Atlantic Ocean, and 98 maneuver areas where the Marines train for combat and humanitarian missions abroad. In addition to the training centers, motor pools maintenance areas, and disposal dumps, the base had daycare centers, schools, family housing areas, fitness centers, libraries, administrative offices, a shopping center, and a hospital.

In the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cited Camp Lejeune as “a major polluter”, particularly for dumping into the storm drain industrial waste, fuel hydrocarbons, radioactive isotopes, and other toxic substances.

One significant source of contamination was an off-base dry-cleaning company that for years dumped into drains solvents used in the cleaning and degreasing processes. Those included tetrachloroethylene (PCE), trichloroethylene (TCE), vinyl chloride, and benzene. Classified by the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) as a probable human carcinogen, PCE was also used to degrease and clean machinery parts and equipment on the base.

Based on soil and groundwater contamination caused by historical disposal, storage, and handling of hazardous materials, Camp Lejeune was placed on the National Priorities List for clean-up under the CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act). In the early 1990s, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) began assessing the adverse health effects from exposure to the drinking water contaminants at Camp Lejeune.

After a Decades-Long Struggle, Veterans With Qualifying Service at Camp Lejeune Can Now Apply For Disability Benefits

In 2017, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) established a presumption of service connection for certain diseases associated with contaminants identified at Camp Lejeune. Presumptive service connection means the VA presumes that specific disabilities or illnesses were caused by military service. For example, veterans who have been diagnosed with kidney cancer and were stationed at Camp Lejeune between August 1, 1952, and December 31, 1987, do not need to prove that their illness is connected to their military service. The VA will automatically consider it being caused by service.

Former reservists and former National Guard members exposed to toxic agents at Camp Lejeune can receive disability compensation payments and health care benefits for eight presumptive disease conditions associated with exposure to health-hazardous contaminants at Camp Lejeune. These conditions are:

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

However, it’s important for veterans and their families (spouses and children) who were impacted by the environmental contamination at Camp Lejeune, to know that claims for disability compensation are not limited to these conditions. For example, pregnant women who lived at Camp Lejeune may have come in contact with highly hazardous chemicals and by doing so inadvertently exposed their developing fetuses. According to epidemiological studies, babies born to mothers who drank Lejeune tap water while pregnant were four times more likely to have severe congenital anomalies such as heart defects and neural tube defects, than babies born to mothers who lived off-base. By law, the VA provides healthcare and healthcare reimbursements for veterans’ family members, including children born to mothers exposed to toxic compounds at the base.

Veterans and Their Family Members Exposed to Harmful Chemicals at Camp Lejeune Tell Their Stories

“My husband was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer and died on October 22, 2017. He had suffered from many illnesses for 16 years, but it was kidney cancer that overcame his body and took his life”, says Frances J., the wife of a U.S. Marine Corps soldier who stationed at Camp Lejeune for three years from 1981 to 1984.

“Military child Helen T. resided at Camp Lejeune from 1979 to 1984 and says every member of her family who lived on the base during the exposure period has had health issues. She survived breast cancer only to receive a diagnosis of stage 2 cervical cancer in the following decade which she says tests proved wasn’t genetic.”

“Former US Marines corpsman Harold W. was stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune for ten months in 1985, long enough for him to notice something wasn’t right with the tap water. Today, a neurological disorder he attributes to his time in service at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, limits him to use power tools for his woodworking hobby.”

“Jerry’s doctors say his bladder cancer diagnosis is likely linked to his duty as a Marine at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, decades ago, and its contaminated water. His problems mean that he needs special accommodations to perform his job because of limitations caused by cancer.”

The improper disposal practices continued until the end of the 1980s when the military instituted regulations for properly disposing of hazardous waste. By then, however, the more than 70 chemicals identified as contaminants at Lejeune had seeped into the soil and adverse health effects that came from consuming that toxic cocktail started to appear. The story of the Camp Lejeune water contamination incident is told through government and civilian documents made available largely by the devoted efforts of a handful of veterans who served on the base and their children.

About the author:

Jonathan Sharp is the CFO and Director of Claims at Environmental Litigation Group P.C., a law firm based in Birmingham, Alabama, committed to providing high-quality legal services to veterans exposed to toxic substances while serving on active duty.

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