The Marine Corps has repeatedly argued federal law didn't regulate the cancer-causing pollutants that fouled the drinking water at Camp Lejeune until long after the contamination was discovered.
But the Corps' own regulations, starting in 1963, required water testing at the North Carolina base and other Marine bases using a method that some say could have provided a warning about tainted water, according to documents and interviews.
The method, called Carbon Chloroform Extract, or CCE, is a "technically practical procedure which will afford a large measure of protection against the presence of undetected toxic materials in finished drinking water," said the 1963 Manual of Naval Preventive Medicine, discussing requirements for all Navy and Marine bases.
The Marine Corps' regulations mandated such testing annually, or every two years if water quality was "stable."
But no record of CCE testing at Camp Lejeune can be found in the thousands of pages of documents detailing what some believe to be the worst drinking-water contamination in U.S. history.
The Corps told the Tampa Bay Times it can find no such evidence that testing took place, but a spokeswoman noted it is possible the records have been discarded under the Corps' records-retention policies.
"A cursory review of the more than 8,000 documents that have been produced did not yield any CCE analytical results," Corps spokeswoman Capt. Kendra Motz said. "However, the absence of records 50 years later is not an indication that an action was or was not taken, only that no records are available."
To critics of the Marine Corps, the test was a lost opportunity to catch a public health disaster in its early years. Today, more than 185,000 people who drank, cooked and bathed in the polluted water from 1953 to 1987 have signed up for a health registry.
Nearly 16,000 of those are Floridians, the second-highest total in the nation behind North Carolina.
"They created these rules to protect their people," said former Marine drill instructor Jerry Ensminger, who served at Lejeune. His 9-year-old daughter, Janey, conceived at the base, died of leukemia in 1985. "They didn't have the discretion to ignore them."
The Janey Ensminger Act, which provides health care to veterans and family exposed to Lejeune's polluted water, was signed into law by President Barack Obama last year in the Oval Office as Ensminger looked on. Camp Lejeune again grabbed the political spotlight last week as Chuck Hagel, Obama's nominee as defense secretary, said during his Senate confirmation hearing he was committed to getting answers about the polluted water at Lejeune.
Chemical contamination in drinking water at Camp Lejeune came from numerous sources, scientists say. They include a dry cleaner adjacent to the base and industrial solvents discarded by Marine personnel.
One of the worst sources of pollution was a fuel depot on base that may have leaked more than a million gallons of gasoline since the base opened in the 1940s, records show.
More than 50 years ago, when the CCE test method was developed, screening water for contaminants could be a difficult and expensive job.
The test was the only way to inexpensively screen water for potential organic contaminants, which includes pesticides, fuel components and other compounds.
Using CCE involves running water through a carbon filter that catches contaminants, then using chloroform as a way to extract the chemicals so they can be measured.
The test was crude by modern standards because it would only "red flag" a water source as possibly containing contaminants, but would not identify what they might be. That required further investigation.
Motz, the Corps spokeswoman, said CCE testing was not effective in detecting some of the more dangerous chemicals found in Camp Lejeune water — benzene, tetrachloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethene (TCE).
Those chemicals, she said, evaporate away during the testing process. Chemists interviewed by the Times agreed, though they said those chemicals do not evaporate completely.
Marine regulations, Motz said, were geared toward screening drinking water for a class of chemicals that included "pesticides, herbicides, fungicides," not chemicals such as PCE, TCE and benzene.
But others note the CCE test is still useful in detecting a wide range of dangerous compounds, even PCE, TCE and benzene in situations involving a heavy contamination.
"It could have been helpful in the right hands," said Mike Hargett, a scientist who owned an environmental laboratory hired by the Corps to test water at Camp Lejeune in the 1980s. "It's a good barometer" of water safety.
A 1972 paper by two Environmental Protection Agency scientists, published in Environmental Science & Technology, noted they detected PCE after testing chemicals extracted using the CCE method.
In addition, Hargett and chemists interviewed by the Times said CCE would be useful in screening for contamination of some fuel components. This takes on added importance at Lejeune, where fuel leaks were a significant problem.
The study of Camp Lejeune water contamination might be unique for the way that civilians with little or no scientific training often find and alert federal scientists about documents missing from or buried in large public archives.
Last year, Ensminger discovered a Navy document that explained CCE was a useful way to screen water for contaminants. He said he has seen a reference to CCE in other Navy/Marine Corps regulations, but hadn't recognized its significance.
Ensminger alerted the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which then asked the Corps for CCE test results, registry officials confirmed.
Motz said regulatory limits for chemicals such as TCE, PCE and benzene were not promulgated by the federal government until the late 1980s, so the Corps did not test the water for them until then.
Corps leaders have repeatedly told the public since the 1980s that they did everything they could to safeguard their personnel and close contaminated water wells.
"We always take measures to go at least a step beyond what is required by law and to ensure that we don't provide water that is unsafe for those using it," B.W. Elston, assistant chief of staff for facilities at Lejeune, told a reporter in 1989. "The commanding general will not accept anything less."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.