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 well — nearly 4,000 times today’s maximum allowed limit of 5 ppb. Given those numbers, environmental engineer Marco Kaltofen said even a CCE test should have raised red flags with a “careful analyst.”
“That’s knock-your-socks-off level — even back then,” said Kaltofen, who worked on the infamous 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.”
Trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), benzene and other toxic chemicals leeched into groundwater from a poorly maintained fuel depot, indiscriminate dumping on the base and an off-base dry cleaner.
Nearly three decades after the first drinking-water wells were closed, victims are awaiting a final federal health assessment — the original 1997 report having been withdrawn because of faulty or incomplete data.
Many former Lejeune Marines and family members believe the Corps still has not come clean about the situation, and the question of whether these tests were conducted is emblematic of the depth of that mistrust.
Marine Corps officials havesaid that federal environmental regulations for these cancer-causing chemicals were not finalized under the Safe Drinking Water Act until 1989 — about four years after the contaminated wells were identified and taken out of service. But victims who have scoured decades-old documents say the military’s health standards should have raised red flags long before.
In response to a request from the Associated Press, Capt. Kendra Motz said the Marines could produce no copies of CCE test results for Lejeune, despite searching for “many hours.”
“The absence of records 50 years later does not necessarily mean action was not taken,” she wrote in an e-mail.
But the two men who oversaw the base lab told the AP they were not even familiar with the procedure.
“A what?” asked Julian Wooten, who was head of the Lejeune environmental section during the 1970s, when asked if his staff had ever performed the CCE test. “I never saw anything, unless the (Navy’s) preventive medicine people were doing some. I don’t have any knowledge of that kind of operation or that kind of testing being done. Not back then.”