The Toxic Legacy of Camp Lejeune's Contaminated Water Supply
BY RICHARD CURREY
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
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
thousandseven hundreds of thousandsof Marines, civilian
employees, and their families. Water that supplied base
housing areaswater used for drinking and bathing and children's
backyard swimming poolswas 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
safea 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 1985and for many years before
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
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 Marinesand stationed at Lejeune when he was forced
into retirement with a mysterious neurological malady that now
confines him to a wheelchair.
||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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
"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 delaysfirst the inactivity in the early 1980s
followed by the much longer period before an investigation was
launchedhave 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 importantand increasingly
visiblethe 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 panelincluding two retired military
officersone 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
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
thatcertainly in their viewwere 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 paneland, by implication, the Commandant's
response to the Camp Lejeune water crisisis "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 binders30 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
"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
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 conditionand
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 certaintyexcept
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
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
risksand my son's."