One might associate possible chemical contamination with landfills and leaching from rusted underground gas tanks, or the presence of nuclear fallout from tests during the 1950s and 1960s, or even from dumped industrial waste products finding their way to rivers in years gone by. But one would hardly think of a military base where families have lived, trained and worked for more than 50 years as the source of chemical contamination to the area’s water source.
U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp John A. Lejeune (Camp Lejeune) was a product of the beginning of World War II. On April 5, 1941, the U.S. Congress authorized more than 14 million dollars for its construction. As World War II had been growing angrier in Europe and U.S. military planners were preparing forces for America's entry into the War, the need for an amphibious training facility located on the East Coast was solved by the Department of the Navy’s purchase of the first 110,000-acre tract of land soon to be known as Marine Barracks New River, North Carolina. Since that time, the military base grew in area; and men and women trained for combat at Camp Lejeune have fought for this Country in the Pacific Islands, Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq and trained for humanitarian and peacekeeping missions in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world.
The documentary film, “Semper Fi: Always Faithful,” currently being considered for an Oscar by the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, offers proof that Camp Lejeune is indeed the site of at least 30 years of underground water contamination the effects of which may have caused many illnesses and deaths of those exposed, including the young and the infirm. According to a January 21st article in The Washington Post by the Associated Press correspondent Darryl Fears, “the Marine Corps at Lejeune routinely dumped fluids containing harmful chemicals, which leached into groundwater and eventually contaminated a well. For decades, buried tanks also leaked fuel, allowing the chemical benzene, a known carcinogen, into the ground nearby.” Local cemeteries swollen with the graves of babies, such as one cemetery area dubbed, Baby Heaven and another dubbed “Baby Land”, are believed to contain the graves of hundreds of those affected most severely by the water’s contamination.
Mike Partain and Jerry Ensminger, who both suffered personal and family illnesses – as well as the tragic death of Ensminger’s young daughter from cancer believed to be caused by the contaminants in the water at Camp Lejeune – authored the documentary. The two are credited with uncovering records showing that the leaked fuel which caused the water contamination was exponentially greater than the Marine Corps admitted or acknowledged. In addition, Partain and Ensminger found 73 men who had lived at Camp Lejeune and experienced breast cancer in a greater concentration than would have been expected for the area under normal circumstances, as it is considered a rare illness in men.
Congressional hearings which took place in 2007 brought to light the facts that the Camp had ignored a directive from the Navy Department to inspect its water systems for possible contamination and to develop a protocol for the safe disposal of hazardous compounds. The Camp also failed to study the health risks of its water following the discovery of toxic compounds in the early 1980s and did not notify Marines and their families of the contamination. Approximately one million people rotated in and out of the base from the late 1950s to the late 1980s. Many people did not even know they had been exposed to contaminated water until they received a government-sponsored questionnaire in the late 1990s. What will happen to those impacted by this incredible and outrageous disregard for the well-being of local citizens, including marines that served our country, and their families? The fact that this happened on a United States Marine Corps base is astounding – a place where most Americans would feel safe. Will our country – the Navy, the Marines – make restitution to these families for their losses?
Maybe some in the Marine Corps should look again at their motto, their creed: "Semper Fi."