Living next to North Carolina Naval Base Camp Lejeune, Lori Lou Freshwater grew up drinking and bathing in water contaminated at levels 240 to 3400 times the safety standard. A candidate for “the worst water contamination case in U.S. history,” the area’s carcinogens caused her mother to lose two sons, one born with an open spine, the other with no cranium, and to develop two kinds of leukemia. The toxic dumping lasted from the ’50s through the ’80s, and as a stopover base for military personnel, up to a million others could be affected. With her harrowingly ironic last name, Freshwater returns to her hometown for Pacific Standard to report on the Superfund-status location’s history of negligence and pollution.
Camp Lejeune has been characterized as a candidate for the worst water contamination case in U.S. history—and I am one of up to a million people who were poisoned. The tragedy, though, is hardly all in the past.
In other areas on the base, waste was generated and discarded into empty lots, forests, roads, waterways, and makeshift dumps. That toxic waste was then taken by the Carolina rains and summer thunderstorms down toward sea level, into water wells, and into the barracks, houses, trailers, offices, and schools—and finally into the bodies of thousands of Marines and their families: into our cells, into our bones.
The EPA has established a maximum contaminant level goal of zero parts per billionfor benzene in public drinking water systems. In 1980, Naval Facilities Engineering Command testing showed that one of the wells at Camp Lejeune measured 380 parts per billion.
Through this work, I’ve learned more about the military’s cover-up of the water contamination, and how the culture that says “Stay Marine” also ensures that some problems remain entombed in secrecy.