WILMINGTON, N.C. — An environmental contractor dramatically underreported the level of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical found in tap water at Camp Lejeune, then omitted it altogether as the Marine base prepared for a federal health review, an Associated Press review has found.
For years, Marines who served at Camp Lejeune have blamed their families' cancers and other ailments on tap water tainted by dry cleaning solvents, and many accuse the military of covering it up. The benzene was traced to massive leaks from fuel tanks at the base on the North Carolina coast as part of a broader, ongoing investigation into that contamination.
When water was sampled in July 1984, scientists found benzene in a well near the base's Hadnot Point Fuel Farm at levels of 380 parts per billion, according to a water tests done by a contractor. A year later, in a report summarizing the 1984 sampling, the same contractor pointed out the benzene concentration "far exceeds" the safety limit set by federal regulators at 5 parts per billion.
In 1992, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease, an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services, began a health risk assessment. That's when a third contractor, the Michael Baker Corp., released a draft report on the feasibility of fixing the overall problem.
In it, the 1984 level on the well of 380 parts per billion had changed to 38 parts per billion. The company's final report on the well, issued in 1994, made no mention of the benzene.
Not only has the benzene not disappeared from the now-closed wells, it has become much worse over time. One sample from a series of tests conducted from June 2007 to August 2009 registered 3,490 parts per billion, according to a report from a fourth contractor.
Kyla Bennett, who spent 10 years as an enforcement officer for the Environmental Protection Agency before becoming an ecologist and environmental attorney, said it was difficult to conclude innocent mistakes were made in the Baker Corp. documents.
"It is weird that it went from 380 to 38 and then it disappeared entirely," she said. "It does support the contention that they did do it deliberately."
Capt. Brian Block, a Marine Corps spokesman, took exception to characterizing the conflicting information in the reports as anything but inadvertent. "It was probably just a mistake on the part of the contractor," he said.
Block said Camp Lejeune held a news conference to alert residents of problems with the water system in 1985 and has spent millions of dollars in outreach and studies. "The Marine Corps has never tried to hide any of this information," he said.