The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
August/September 2004
FEATURE ARTICLE
 
 

Troubled Waters:
The Toxic Legacy of Camp Lejeune's Contaminated Water Supply
 

BY RICHARD CURREY

Camp Lejeune is the 233-square-mile sprawl of Marine base in southeastern North Carolina where I went through Field Medical Service School and later served with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines of the 2nd Marine Division. Returning for the first time since my discharge at the base in 1972, I drove past the elegant sweep of lawns and flower beds and dignified Georgian architecture in the dappled shade of a May afternoon. The effect was that of a small and peaceful kingdom.

But this is a troubled kingdom these days, haunted by revelations of an environmental calamity that almost certainly dates back to the years after World War II and may well have affected thousandseven hundreds of thousandsof Marines, civilian employees, and their families.  Water that supplied base housing areaswater used for drinking and bathing and children's backyard swimming poolswas found to be contaminated with industrial solvents in 1981. These solvents, known as "volatile organic compounds" or "VOCs," are implicated in a wide range of health problems including cancer and crippling birth defects.

Although Camp Lejeune's chain of command, including the base commander, were aware of the contamination in the early months of 1981, the wells distributing the tainted water were not capped for four years. Follow-up testing during this period revealed VOCs in one Lejeune well at nearly 300 times the level now known to be safea well that supplied an enlisted housing area known as Tarawa Terrace. Subsequent testing at other base locations confirmed VOCs at varying levels. In effect, the Marines, civilian employees, and their families who lived and worked at many locations at Camp Lejeune drank, cooked with, and showered in a wash of toxic solvents between the years 1981 and 1985and for many years before that.

The Marine Corps's official estimate places the number of possible Lejeune-related VOC cases at 50,000. But the North Carolina-based victims group Water Survivors believes the number is closer to 200,000. If the Water Survivors figure proves to be correct, Camp Lejeune might well represent the largest water contamination case in history.

Lejeune's solvent-tainted water crisis has been powerfully humanized through several cases involving children lost to cancer or born with birth defects. Beyond children, though, are cases involving adults, including former Navy doctor Michael Gros, stationed at Lejeune in the early 1980s and now confronting lymphoma. And VVA Board member Lupe Alviar, Jr., was halfway through a career in the Marinesand stationed at Lejeune when he was forced into retirement with a mysterious neurological malady that now confines him to a wheelchair.

  Photo: Courtesy Lupe Alviar  
  Lupe Alviar with son Robert at Camp Lejune, 1970.  

Investigators from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) posit a long-standing base-wide pattern of contamination, and confirm that children conceived at Lejeune have developed cancers at nearly twice the expected rate.

Today, the years of official delay in capping wells in the early 1980s serve as a rallying point for Water Survivors and their supporters. Senator and Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards and Senator Elizabeth Dole, both of North Carolina, and Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont have called for prompt action from the Marines and the Department of the Navy in addressing the needs of exposed individuals. Jeffords, a Navy veteran, is the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and a leader in the demand for a stronger and more comprehensive response to what is a crisis growing in reach, intensity, and significance.


Volatile organic compounds are synthetic chemicals particularly effective for dry cleaning and for cleaning machine and engine parts. Also used in ink, glues, sealants, lubricants, and pesticides, VOCs have been ubiquitous in our lives for decades and are now regarded as among the most prevalent of environmental contaminants. Indeed, in most cases where military base cleanups have been designated as Superfund sites, VOCs have figured prominently in the damage done.

Strongly implicated VOCs at Camp Lejeune are tetrachloroethylene or "perc," and trichloroethylene (TCE). Both of these chemicals are associated with an array of human ailments from dizziness and headaches to overwhelming birth defects. Animal studies have established relationships between VOCs and liver and kidney damage (including liver cancer), leukemia, and birth defects that, if not lethal, are completely disabling. A survey of women who work in the dry cleaning industry suggested a connection between VOC exposure and increased risks of miscarriage, and a National Institutes of Health study found "clear evidence" of a link to cancer in certain strains of mice. The Department of Health and Human Services's current official advisory is that VOCs "may reasonably be anticipated to be" carcinogenic.


The dumping of used dry cleaning fluid by a civilian-owned off-base establishment garners much of the blame for Camp Lejeune's bad water. But the notion that a single dry cleaner was solely responsible for Lejeune's water problems has not passed muster with federal investigators.  ATSDR noted in a July 2003 report that five Lejeune housing areas in addition to Tarawa Terrace suffered significant water contamination, including water supplied to the Naval Hospital and its housing compound. ATSDR cited on-base vehicle maintenance areas, storage lots, and leaking underground tanks as also contributing to what appears to be an ecological debacle. The ATSDR report goes on to say that "since it is unknown when the contamination started in each of the [water] distribution systems, chemicals could have been present for many years before their initial discovery in 1981."

The EPA, registering the same opinion, made Camp Lejeune a Superfund site in 1989. Although the Marine Corps claims the failure to act in the early 1980s was linked to the absence of established and enforceable drinking water standards at the time, the first analyst to note the presence of VOCs in Lejeune's water hand-wrote across his report "WATER HIGHLY CONTAMINATED WITH CHLORINATED HYDROCARBONS (SOLVENTS)!" Writing bold personal remarks across official documents has never been standard operating procedure in the Marine Corps, and doing so suggests a significant level of concern. Richard Maas, a professor of environmental studies and co-director of The Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, concurred in remarks quoted in The Washington Post. Information about water contaminant levels, he noted, were readily available by the late 1970s. The Lejeune levels, even in 1981, "would have constituted pretty close to a drinking water crisis," Maas said.

But it was not until September 1999, when ATSDR launched its first survey effort, that Lejeune's polluted water began to draw national attention.

The ATSDR survey searched for women who lived at Camp Lejeune during their pregnancies at any point during the years 1968-1985. The survey centered on the association between VOCs and birth defects, including malformations of the brain and spinal cord, cleft lip and palate, and development of childhood cancers like leukemia.

It took ATSDR 29 months to complete the survey, concluding in January 2002 with nearly 13,000 individuals screened, ATSDR then tied reported problems to available medical documentation, confirming 103 cases as eligible for further study.

The ATSDR survey was challenged by both Water Survivors and Senator Jeffords, notably because it excluded all but unborn children. Why, ask both Water Survivors and Jeffords, does the study exclude adults, family members, or siblings who might have been equally affected in the survey years of 1968 to 1985? And why was the survey limited to a prescribed group of specific medical diagnoses? Water Survivors took their objections directly to ATSDR, as well as to North Carolina's elected representatives, and Sen. Jeffords asked Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson to "immediately expand the scope of the [ATSDR] study to include all Marine Corps personnel and their dependents" for the 17-year study period.

But ATSDR faces a variety of administrative and scientific constraints. The 1968 survey starting point was selected because computerized health records did not exist prior to that year in North Carolina (and several years later than that at Camp Lejeune itself). Attempts to locate 30-year-old paper-based medical records from a transient population would be a daunting undertaking. And in restricting its survey to a few specific diagnostic categories, ATSDR reflected current data that offers convincing evidence of causative links with VOC exposure in only a few illnesses and abnormalities. ATSDR also has the task of diagramming the water flow that existed in the early 1980s at Camp Lejeune against virtually nonexistent base maintenance records about which wells were operational on any given day in any given distribution area.


Lupe Alviar was in the 11th year of a Marine Corps career and stationed at Camp Lejeune when he began to suffer a peculiar malady in the autumn of 1976. Staff Sergeant Alviar fell abruptly and without warning. "My legs just went," he said. "I felt fine at the time, had no health problems that I knew of, and I just fell down. I didn't make much of it. I got up, brushed myself off, and carried on."

He fell again about a month later. "No warning," said Alviar. "I just suddenly found myself on the ground. So I got up another time, brushed off, and carried on." But the episodes persisted.  Alviar made an appointment with the base podiatrist, who quickly referred him to a neurologist.

An initial evaluation turned up nothing of note. Alviar returned to unrestricted duty. When the falling episodes persisted, Alviar went back to the Naval Hospital and found himself with a formal diagnosis: familial spastic paraplegia. That condition, he was told, was progressive. His legs continuing to weaken, and Alviar was forced to accept retirement on medical grounds in 1977.

Miraculously, then, for several years, Alviar seemed to improve. He was able to "throw the leg braces away," and returned to a cane. He was walking normally again, with only occasional episodes of leg weakness. "I'm not sure what was going on," Alviar said. "Was it an actual remission? Was it my own willpower? Some of both? Anyway, none of my doctors were able to shed any light on what was happening."

But after nearly eight years, the symptoms returned, following the same progressive course as when they first emerged during Alviar's active-duty days. "The second time," Alviar said, "I went past the leg braces and right into a wheelchair." It was still many more years, however, before the news of Lejeune's water problems surfaced and Alviar "just had to wonder. I mean, I was there, I drank a hell of a lot of water, and who's to say? And there's another thing, too."

That other thing is Alviar's son, born at Lejeune in 1969 with "a leg twisted up like a pretzel" as well as a missing ear, and a lifetime of medical difficulties since. Doctors now speculate that he, like his father, is suffering with some form of progressive neurological degeneration.


Terry Dyer and Karen Strand are the daughters of the late John Lovell Fristoe. Their father was a civilian school principal at one of Tarawa Terrace's two elementary schools. He and his family lived on-base, at Tarawa Terrace, for 15 years. "We lived there through all the years the toxic water was pouring out of the taps," Terry Dyer said. "And our entire family has been plagued with illness ever since."

John Fristoe died suddenly of a heart attack at age 45, but Dyer recalls that he suffered a range of apparently unconnected maladies throughout his short life, including persistent severe allergies and unexplained bouts of hepatitis.

Then her sister Johnsie suddenly stopped talking in early childhood, on the heels of several behavioral changes. Johnsie lives today as a mentally retarded adult and has faced a prolonged deterioration in learning ability and psychological status. No specific medical reason has ever been tendered for Johnsie's journey into disability after enjoying a normal early childhood.

 
Photo: Courtesy Terry Dyer
 
Photo: Courtesy of Terry Dyer
 

 

 

John Fristoe

Johnsie, Karen, and Terry

It would take the death of her father, the unraveling of her sister's health, a chain of ailments for herself and every member of her family, and, finally, the 1999 arrival of a plain white envelope from ATSDR announcing the health survey of Lejeune residents past and present before, as Dyer said, "It all came together for me. I was on the phone to ATSDR the very next day. That was when I understood that the Marine Corps had not been honest with us. And that we deserved answers."

Dyer enlisted her sister and launched Water Survivors. Initially conceived as an information resource and a way to share stories and concerns, the group has evolved into an advocacy organization with clout. With the advice and counsel of Jan Schlictmann, the attorney made famous for his lawsuit against W.R. Grace Corporation and its massive contamination of the town of Woburn, Massachusetts, Dyer and Strand started a web site, www.watersurvivors.com, that is the richest on-line library of Lejeune-related documents available. She also had personal meetings with her elected representatives, as well as with Marine representatives at the Pentagon, and has been instrumental in the some 300 "Form 95s" (intent to sue the federal government) filed with the Navy JAG office.

Water Survivors is now a collective of more than 600 ardent, outspoken, well-informed activists with personal ties to the Marine Corps and to the possibility of physical and psychological damage suffered through exposure to the tainted waters of Camp Lejeune.

"I really believe," Terry Dyer said, "that the toxic water at Lejeune took my father away. He missed his children growing up. He missed our marriages; he missed his grandchildren. And I'm convinced the water deprived my sister of any kind of normal life. So what should we do?  Nothing? Let it pass? What would you do if this was about you or your wife or sister or your children?"

At the heart of the Water Survivors campaign is what Dyer expresses as a kind of outraged disappointment in "what the Marine Corps has done to us, all of us. We've got people who've lost their kids, or had to watch their kids grow up disabled. And these are the children of Marines who were serving their country, some of them in other countries or at sea. If we can't depend on the military to protect its own, where does that leave us? This entire issue gets right to our basic values as Americans. And, as far as I'm concerned, the Marine Corps has done nothing so far but shut us out, push us aside, and pretend we don't matter."

Senator Jim Jeffords agrees.

"We've averted our eyes from this situation for far too long," Jeffords said in a conversation in his Capitol Hill office in July. "There are families suffering, in need of advice, options, resources. The delay on this matter is simply unacceptable."

The delaysfirst the inactivity in the early 1980s followed by the much longer period before an investigation was launchedhave led some observers to conclude that the Marine Corps attempted a cover-up. Or, at least, a deliberate effort to obscure and minimize the breadth and impact of Lejeune's water problem.

"As I've said before," Jeffords said, "sunlight is the best disinfectant. We need to shed light on what actually happened at Camp Lejeune, and why. Too much time elapsed between knowledge and action at every step in this affair. The job now is to change that precedent, to move forward and get to the bottom of things."

What that might mean for starters, Jeffords said, are Senate hearings. "I'd like to hear directly from the Marine leadership," the Senator told me. "I think we've only just begun to understand the full extent of the Camp Lejeune contamination."

Malcolm Woolf, Counsel to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, also has followed the Camp Lejeune contamination. "A complicating factor is the sheer number of players in the picture now," he said. "We've got the Marine Corps, the Department of Health and Human Services, ATSDR, EPA, local and national elected representatives and very soon the Government Accountability Office." The GAO has been asked by Senator Dole to mount its own Lejeune investigation, financed through a line item in the 2005 defense authorization bill. On the other hand, Woolf observed, "the number of agencies, offices, bureaus, and elected officials getting involved confirms just how importantand increasingly visiblethe Lejeune water crisis is."

One of the continuing complaints of Water Survivors has to do with the efficacy of the USMC-sponsored independent review panel. Terry Dyer was "disappointed all over again" when she learned that the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Michael Hagee, appointed only three people to the panelincluding two retired military officersone a former submarine commander and then Acting Secretary of the Navy and the other a Marine general who had been deputy commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Desert Storm. The panel's chairman is the former congressman Ronald Packard, a Republican known as a friend to the military during his many years in office. Dyer wondered who would represent her group's concerns. And where was an expert with the knowledge and experience to consider issues involving water laced with toxic chemicals?

Dyer and her sister mobilized their network, flooding Marine Corps headquarters with calls, e-mails, and letters. Their complaints seemed to have been noted when a toxicologist named William H. Glaze was added to the panel. The panel made its first fact-finding visit to Camp Lejeune in May, going to the areas where tainted wells once operated and meeting with members of Water Survivors, the public, and the press at the Lejeune USO.

The meeting was contentious. Dyer and Strand had questions thatcertainly in their viewwere not answered so much as massaged. Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine master sergeant who lived at Tarawa Terrace and lost his daughter to leukemia, bluntly suggested that the panel was part of a conspiracy to obscure and deflect. He said the paneland, by implication, the Commandant's response to the Camp Lejeune water crisisis "like putting a band-aid on a sucking chest wound."

A local reporter who covered the meeting confirmed that Dyer and Strand "asked very pointed questions and got only vague answers. The panel chairman made it pretty plain that his group won't be doing more than making recommendations. This has all the makings of a ritual show by a toothless committee."

One week after the meeting, William Glaze abruptly resigned. A press release explained his sudden departure as an effort to avoid potential conflicts of interest, since Glaze had previously worked with and advised the EPA, an agency long involved in Lejeune water issues (and currently conducting its own investigation).

William Glaze is one of the most respected environmental scientists in the nation, and certainly among the most experienced. His resignation begs the question as to why he would accept the Lejeune consultancy in the first place: Would he not have seen immediately that a conflict of interest loomed? Terry Dyer offered another suggestion. "I wonder," she mused, "if he didn't get down here and listen to us and realize that the Marine Corps did not act in everybody's best interest. Maybe he saw that this issue is going to be a very hot potato."

Dr. Glaze has not responded to e-mails requesting his comments on the waters of Camp Lejeune and his resignation from the panel.


I arrived a bit early for my meeting with Ronald Packard, the chairman of the Drinking Water Fact-Finding Panel for Camp Lejeune. An assistant had me wait in a small office, where I quickly realized I was looking at a large aerial map of the Tarawa Terrace area. The locations of ABC Cleaners and Lejeune Boulevard and the two wellheads found to be contaminated with VOCs in 1981 were clearly indicated. Radiating out from the wellheads were purple-shaded ellipses, the groundwater "blooms."

I was staring at a graphic representation of the extent of groundwater contamination in Tarawa Terrace. Seen this way, as a richly-colored map with the violet blossoms under the wellheads, the precise geometries of aerial projection rendered the contamination somehow more definite, far less amorphous, far less subject to individual interpretation.

Against the wall to my right was a bookshelf stacked with large three-ring binders30 volumes in all holding documents related to the Lejeune water case. The spines neatly marked the range of documents, memoranda, e-mail threads, correspondence. This was the beleaguered history of the contamination of a United States Marine base's drinking water.

Ron Packard arrived, his youthful demeanor and focused energy sharply belying his 73 years. He quickly acknowledged that the panel faces complex issues and divided loyalties.

"We're listening very carefully to the concerns of the people who feel they or their families suffered as a result of the solvents in the water," he said. "But it is not, however, the mandate of this panel to address those issues specifically or offer any form of redress. We're strictly a fact-finding group."

I noted that the inescapable heart of the matter were the years of inaction at Camp Lejeune, during which tainted water continued to reach homes, schools, offices, service areas, and leisure facilities.

"The Commandant has asked us to look very hard at that period of time," Packard said, "and determine if appropriate decisions were made in the context of the early 1980s. There wasn't as much known about toxins or their effects back then. This panel has to make a decision about how it looked to the Camp Lejeune leadership at that time."

I asked for a comment on the panel's first visit to Lejeune, which culminated in the meeting that left Terry Dyer, Karen Strand, Jerry Ensminger, and their supporters angry and, once again, disappointed. "As I mentioned," Packard said, "this panel is in no way discounting their concerns. But I think the answers they need will come from other groups-very notably from ATSDR, who are the scientific and medical experts. Their study is ongoing, and that's where we're going to learn just how extensive the effects of the contamination were in terms of illness or birth defects."

Packard reminded me that much of the documentation that might reveal what happened in the Lejeune water system prior to 1985 is unavailable, either lost or, in fact, never existed in the first place. "And in many cases we're dealing with people's memories," he said. "That can get pretty hazy. We've had people who said they were not involved, but then we produced documents confirming they were. At which point they say they just don't recall the details."

Despite the sense of urgency felt by Water Survivors, it seems clear the panel is a first step, not a final answer. Packard agreed. "The Commandant has not limited our range in terms of what we can look at or who we can talk to or consult with. In fact, after we got underway, the Marine Corps has left us alone to do our work. But definitive conclusions about water contamination and human illness are simply not within this panel's purview."


These days, Lupe Alviar speculates from his wheelchair. "Was it the water at Camp Lejeune? Because my family has always been healthy. We have no history of genetic or inherited illnesses. And I was a very fit, gung-ho Marine who ran every day and made all my P.T. marks without fail. Then I developed a strange conditionand after that my son was born with congenital deformities. His mom drank the water while she was pregnant, right along with me."

Alviar notes that none of his many doctors over the years has been willing or able to suggest that VOC-contaminated water lies behind his and his son's problems. "I understand that science can't answer every question," he said. "But if the information was out there about what these toxins might do to a human body or an unborn child back in the 80s, why would the Corps fail to act?"

Lupe Alviar is now thought to have a condition known as spinal cerebellar ataxia. "This is the seventh diagnosis I've had from six different doctors in the course of my illness," he said. "With each new diagnosis there's been a new level of certaintyexcept each diagnosis has been disproven. I've supposedly had multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's Disease, and spinal cerebellar degeneration of unknown origin, and not one proved to be what I actually have."

The medical evidence for spinal cerebellar ataxia now seems equivocal as well. In any event, none of Alviar's mixed bag of diagnostic labels are definitely linked to VOC exposure. Or, as Alviar added, "not yet, anyway."

"I keep coming back to the water," Alviar said. "It'd be great if the scientists could confirm some connection between the toxins and diseases, one way or the other, so we could lay the matter to rest. But you know, even without scientific proof, I don't think the Marine Corps acted in good faith on this matter. And they haven't been forthcoming in the years since. You have to understand: I was a career Marine. A Vietnam veteran. This was my life. Service, valor, Semper Fi, all that. In exchange for that commitment it looks as if the Corps lied to me about my own health risksand my son's."

   

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