The Tragic History of Camp Lejeune: A Cautionary Tale of Environmental Contamination
Feb. 20, 2023
Camp Lejeune is a United States Marine Corps base located in Jacksonville, North Carolina. It covers over 246 square miles and has a population of over 170,000 military personnel, their families, and civilian employees. For over thirty years, between 1953 and 1987, the base was also contaminated with toxic chemicals that were released into the water supply, leading to the exposure of hundreds of thousands of people to carcinogenic substances.
The contamination of Camp Lejeune's water supply began in the 1950s, as the base began to expand and modernize. To support the growing population of personnel and their families, the base built several water treatment plants that sourced water from shallow wells. In the early 1950s, the base also began using solvents, degreasers, and other chemicals in its maintenance and repair facilities, which were disposed of in unlined pits and leaking storage tanks.
It wasn't until the 1980s that the full extent of the contamination was revealed. In 1982, the Marine Corps discovered that the drinking water at the base was contaminated with volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), and benzene, which are known to cause cancer, birth defects, and other health problems. These chemicals had been released into the water supply by the base's waste disposal systems and were present in levels hundreds of times higher than what is considered safe.
The Marine Corps initially downplayed the severity of the contamination and only began notifying residents of the problem in 1984. It wasn't until 1985 that the base began testing the wells and shutting down the contaminated ones. However, many people had already been exposed to the toxic chemicals for years. It's estimated that between 1953 and 1987, over 700,000 people were exposed to the contaminated water, including military personnel, their families, and civilian employees.
The consequences of the contamination have been devastating. Many people who were exposed to the toxic chemicals have suffered from a range of health problems, including cancer, neurological disorders, reproductive issues, and other illnesses. The contamination has been linked to a range of cancers, including leukemia, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and breast cancer. Children who were born to mothers who were exposed to the contaminated water during pregnancy have a higher risk of birth defects, developmental disorders, and childhood cancers.
The government has acknowledged the severity of the contamination and has taken steps to provide medical care and compensation to those who were affected. In 2012, President Obama signed into law the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act, which provides medical care to those who were exposed to the contaminated water and compensation to those who developed illnesses as a result of their exposure. The law also required the Department of Veterans Affairs to establish a registry of those who were exposed to the contaminated water.
Despite these efforts, many people are still suffering from the consequences of the contamination. The health effects of exposure to the toxic chemicals can take years or even decades to manifest, and many people are still developing illnesses related to their exposure. The contamination at Camp Lejeune serves as a cautionary tale about the importance of protecting our water supply and ensuring that harmful chemicals are not released into our environment.
The contamination of Camp Lejeune's water supply is a tragic example of how the release of toxic chemicals into the environment can have devastating consequences. For over thirty years, hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to carcinogenic substances, leading to a range of health problems and illnesses. While the government has taken steps to provide medical care and compensation to those who were affected, many people are still suffering from the consequences of the contamination.