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What is the Importance of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act?

— August 11, 2022

It was not until a third EPA report was released in 1984 and news of the base’s toxic water went public that action was finally taken to limit exposure to the deadly substances.

On August 10th, 2022, President Biden signed the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act into law. Known more concisely as the “PACT Act,” the bill made national headlines repeatedly in July and August as it worked its way through the legislative process. Despite some uncertainty over the PACT Act’s future when it was voted down in the Senate on July 27th, 2022, the act was quickly revisited and passed after monumental pushback from veteran’s advocates. 

As its full title suggests, the PACT Act is designed to help military servicemembers and their families if they were exposed to dangerous chemicals, toxins, or other harmful substances during their service. The legislation not only provides relief to veterans who were exposed to dangerous substances while abroad, but also those who suffered harm while stationed in the United States itself. One of the most significant components of the PACT Act is the Camp Lejeune Justice Act. This component of the greater legislative bundle offers relief to servicemembers who suffered lasting harm while stationed at the Camp Lejeune Marine base in North Carolina.

What is the History of Camp Lejeune?

Camp Lejeune is an active Marine Corps base. During World War II, the U.S. foresaw a need to have an East Coast amphibious training facility for military operations. On April 5th, 1941, the U.S. Congress authorized approximately fourteen million dollars for the creation of such a warfighting platform in North Carolina. With dense forests and miles of beach for the Marines to train on, Camp Lejeune was seen as an ideal facility and base. 

Camp Lejeune was constructed in 1941 and entered active service in 1942. Initially, the base was known as Marine Barracks Camp Lejeune, although it would be renamed as Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in 1944. Throughout the years, troops have trained at the facility to enter combat in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and a multitude of other conflicts. However, a substantial length of Camp Lejeune’s history is marred by over three decades of serious water contamination on the base. 

What Were the Water Problems at Camp Lejeune?

From 1953 to 1987, many of Camp Lejeune’s on-base water treatment facilities were compromised by deadly chemicals and toxins. Improper disposal of chemicals and toxic waste, leaking military storage tanks, and the careless acts of an off-base dry-cleaning establishment allowed volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to infiltrate the water supply. Unfortunately, the water treatment facilities that were most severely impacted were the ones that served most of the base’s family housing units and communal spaces. 

VOCs are known for their exceptionally high vapor pressure, low solubility in water, and the ability to cause life-threatening medical complications if ingested. The United States Geological Survey, which provides unbiased research and statistics on natural and man-made environmental hazards, states that consuming “VOCs with ratios greater than 1 may be of potential human-health concern.” The water used at Camp Lejeune during the specified three-decade period contained VOCs at significantly higher ratios than was safe for human consumption.

The Shapiro Legal Group notes that the following chemicals were found to have been present in the camp’s water supply at dangerous levels:

  • Benzene
  • Tetrachloroethylene
  • Trichloroethylene
  • Vinyl chloride
  • Perchloroethylene 

Carcinogens such as benzene were found within the water supply at concentrations up to 2,500 µg/L. From 1953 to 1987, this toxic and potentially lethal water was used for drinking, showering, and cooking on the base. Countless members of the military and their family members suffered long-lasting and sometimes fatal illnesses as a result.

How Many Water Sources Were Contaminated on the Base?

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) performed an in-depth study and analysis of Camp Lejeune’s water-related problems. Their research zeroed in on three water distribution systems on the base – Holcomb Boulevard, Tarawa Terrace, and Hadnot Point. During the contamination period, these three systems provided nearly all the water used in the base’s family units and shared spaces.

Although all three filtration systems were compromised to some extent, the water produced at Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point was much deadlier for humans than that produced within Holcomb Boulevard. Multiple cancer-causing chemicals were found in the water passing through Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point, while the only dangerous substance found in Holcomb Boulevard’s water was trichloroethylene (TCE). TCE is a degreasing solvent that is primarily used in industrial manufacturing. Fortunately, TCE did not directly infiltrate Holcomb Boulevard – during periods when that filtration system was not running, contaminated water from Hadnot Point was used to meet on-base demand. 

Who Can Get Sick from Camp Lejeune’s Contaminated Water Supply?

Countless military families have lived at Camp Lejeune since soldiers first began using the base in 1942. Residents at the facility during the years the water supply was contaminated were largely unaware of the dangers to their health. They used the water provided by the Marines for cooking, bathing, and cooking, with no idea that doing so could put their lives in peril. The Camp Lejeune Justice Act establishes that anyone present on the base for thirty days or longer from 1953 to 1987 may be at risk of health complications. 

The base’s toxic water was capable of causing numerous health problems, including:

  • Multiple myeloma
  • Lung cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Kidney cancer
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Myelodysplastic syndromes

Women who lived at Camp Lejeune may also suffer serious health conditions due to the toxic water. Long-term exposure to VOCs is known to cause both miscarriages and birth defects. Additionally, many young children and infants born or raised at Camp Lejeune died due to exposure to the contaminated water. The death toll among young victims was so high that a nearby cemetery was known informally as “Baby Heaven.” One of the primary factors for this tragic loss of young lives may be that an on-base day-care center from 1957 – 1982 was formerly used as a pesticide dispensary and storage facility. DDT, chlordane, and other insecticides were detected in the surface soil more than two decades after the building ceased to be used for pesticide storage and deployment. 

What Actions Were Taken to Rectify Camp Lejeune’s Water Problems?

One might expect that action was taken to rectify Camp Lejeune’s dangerous water problem as soon as the scale of the situation became known. However, this was not the case. Multiple investigations were launched to discover the depth of the base’s water contamination, but proactive action was never taken to address the problem. The first report on the base’s water situation was released by an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) laboratory team in 1981. The report stated plainly that unsafe levels of solvents had been found in the base’s water supply.

Water faucet graphic
Water faucet graphic; image courtesy of geralt via Pixabay,

When Marine officials at Camp Lejeune were presented with this report, they brought in Grainger Laboratories to perform a second examination of the water supply. Grainger Laboratories confirmed the findings initially reported by the EPA in their own summary. The co-founder of Grainger Laboratories, along with an on-base chemist, reportedly “urged the Marine officer with oversight over water issues to investigate and fix contamination” at Camp Lejeune but were unheeded. Additional testing run by the laboratory between 1982 and 1984 also resulted in very few concrete actions taken to remedy the situation.

It was not until a third EPA report was released in 1984 and news of the base’s toxic water went public that action was finally taken to limit exposure to the deadly substances. The impacted wells began to be shut down during that year, but the process was not completed until 1987. 

What Does the Camp Lejeune Justice Act Do to Help Water Contamination Victims?

Now that the Camp Lejeune Justice Act has passed into law as a component of the greater PACT Act, water contamination victims will be able to file lawsuits against the U.S. government for harm suffered due to toxin exposure on the Marine base. Victims who were present on the base for no less than thirty days between 1953 and 1987 may potentially be able to recover damages for:

  • Loss of future earnings
  • Past and future medical treatments and expenses
  • Specialized medical care and therapies
  • Lost wages during treatment or recovery
  • Pain, disability, and suffering
  • Depression, anxiety, loss of quality of life, or emotional pain and suffering
  • The wrongful death of a loved one 

If you or a loved one served at Camp Lejeune for the aforementioned years, speak to an injury attorney that is familiar with the situation as soon as possible. You may be able to secure compensation for yourself or a loved one you lost due to the base’s contaminated water. 

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