How the Marine Corps Covered Up Toxic Water at an N.C. Base

A documentary following the fight to hold the military responsible for contamination at Camp Lejeune is now available online.

For 30 years, carcinogens seeped into drinking water at Camp Lejeune, a Marine base in Jacksonville, North Carolina, exposing more than 750,000 people to the toxins including benzene and trichloroethylene. The contaminated wells stayed in use even after camp leaders were told of the problem. In 1989, the site went onto the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of Superfund sites, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry followed up with a public health assessment. It was the resulting report that caught Marine Corps Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger’s attention: the contaminated water, he realized, could have caused the leukemia that killed his daughter Janey in 1985.

Contaminant levels at Camp Lejeune registered between 20 and 280 times the amount now allowed by federal regulation. Toxins found in the camp’s water have been linked to birth defects and a host of cancers, including leukemia. More than 70 men who served at Camp Lejeune have been diagnosed with male breast cancer, a rare disease also linked to the toxins.

Ensminger has been fighting for years to hold the Department of Defense responsible for the contamination at Camp Lejeune. A documentary following his fight, Semper Fi: Always Faithful, has made its way around the festival circuit since it debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, and in November was named one of 15 films advancing to the next round in the Academy Awards' documentary competition. It’s available now on streaming services like iTunes and Sundance Now, and will be coming to Netflix in March.


During production of the film, Ensminger and his allies found some success: In 2009, the Marine Corps began notifying residents of the base about the contamination, increasing the odds that other victims would be tested for and identify cancers before they had grown or spread. But the fight for accountability is ongoing. North Carolina legislators in both chambers have introduced bills that would require the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to provide health care for illnesses connected to the Camp Lejeune contamination. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is expected to produce a new report on the contamination soon, but a letter given to the Project on Government Oversight indicates that the military is trying to limit the amount of information the ATSDR releases, citing security reasons.

At Camp Lejeune, the toxic chemicals that seeped into the water supply came from waste disposal, a leaky fuel depot, and an dry cleaners located off-base. It's one of hundreds of military sites affected by hazardous waste: 141 of the original 1,620 Superfund sites were military installations, for instance.

“While making the film, I began to see that the Department of Defense is behaving the way that most polluters behave,” Semper Fi co-director Rachel Libert has written. “They often bury their head in the sand and hope that no harm comes from what they've done. I think the difference here is that we expect more from our government than from private industry.”

Photo via (cc) Flickr user jamiejohndavies

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