U.S. Water News Online
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- Decades ago, it was a simple way to
dispose of high-powered cleaning solvents -- pour the liquid on the
ground and let it soak into the sandy soil of eastern North Carolina.
The thousands of families that passed through Camp Lejeune over
the years likewise didn't think twice about drinking water that came
from that ground.
But late last year, military officials acknowledged there may be a
link between the contaminated water and reports of birth defects,
childhood cancers, and stunted growth.
To make sure, they're trying to find up to 16,500 children whose
mothers conceived or carried them while living on the East Coast's
largest Marine base between 1968 and 1985.
In a study that will cost the federal government at least $3.2
million, they will try to determine whether women who became pregnant
while living on the base during that period had children with health
One former resident is already sure the contamination caused the
heart defect that killed her son.
``For all of those years, I blamed myself,'' Anne Townsend said.
``Now, I find that all I did was drink the water.''
While few people would think it wise to pour chemicals on the
ground today, the Vietnam-era days at Lejeune were different.
Marines cleaning tanks and weapons at numerous places around the
base would simply pour their solvents onto the ground or into
``It was a pretty common practice back then to throw it out
back,'' said Neal Paul, director of Lejeune's environmental cleanup
Some 220 drums of tricholorethylene, a chemical degreaser called
TCE, were left in the woods or buried at a remote spot near Wallace
Creek on the 153,000-acre base.
Over time, the barrels rusted and leaked, and the chemical seeped
through the soil, settling about 225 feet below the surface in a huge
groundwater supply that was used for base housing.
Up the road toward Jacksonville outside the main base gate, a dry
cleaning business also disposed of tetrachloroethylene (PCE), a
commonly used dry cleaning solvent, by dumping it outside. That
practice by ABC One-Hour Cleaners led to pollution in the groundwater
supply that fed wells used by Tarawa Terrace, a housing area for
enlisted Marines, and the Hospital Point officer housing area,
according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The compounds have been linked to birth defects, stunted growth,
and childhood cancers such as leukemia.
Water wells fed by the contaminated water were shut down in the
mid-'80s, and Lejeune's contamination was declared a federal
Superfund site in 1989, making it eligible for federal cleanup funds.
Based on a small sampling of Camp Lejeune families, the federal
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry published a report
in 1998 that identified a potential link between the contaminated
water and birth defects.
Now the corps has made appeals through the news media to find
families of women who were pregnant between 1968 and 1985 while
living in base housing.
Recently, almost 9,700 had been contacted. The search could end if
13,200 families -- 80 percent of the total -- are interviewed.
An ad campaign may be launched in the spring if not enough
participants are located by then, said Marine spokesman Capt. Steve
Marie Socha, who is in charge of the government's Lejeune survey,
said further study would be warranted if the respondents reveal a
birth defect rate that's higher than the national average.
Anne Townsend, now 68, and her husband, Thomas, have responded to
the survey and sent 180 letters to newspapers to raise awareness of
Thomas Townsend, 70, hopes his lawyer can get compensation if the
study shows a link between the baby's deformed heart and the
chemicals in the water at their home in the Paradise Point housing
area near the base officers' club.
Their son died in 1967.
Another former base resident who answered the survey isn't so sure
about the danger. Col. Thomas Woodson, 49, was an artillery officer
when his daughter was born 24 years ago.
``I lived at the Paradise Point officer housing area. My youngest
daughter was born during the time frame while we lived in base
housing,'' Woodson said. ``I cannot associate any health problems I
know of with [the time] we lived there.''
While researchers try to find humans who may have been affected by
the tainted water, pumps are dealing with the damaged land.
Today, the Wallace Creek site is home to a $5.5 million,
windowless white building where pumps pull 350 gallons of water a
minute from the aquifer, scrub it through filters to reduce the
pollution, and spit it into the creek.
Just outside the gate to Tarawa Terrace, a much smaller
pump-and-treat station in a red brick hut pulls water from the ground
and filters it. That station is owned and operated by the EPA, which
also is working to clean the soil at the cleaners.
Both pumping stations are only keeping the plumes of contamination
from spreading, Paul said. ``The technology just isn't there to get
the aquifer back to a pristine state.''
Return to the
U.S. Water News Archives page
Return to the U.S. Water
Use a comma to separate e-mail addresses:
Hi, I thought you might like to read this article.