Jerry Ensminger’s 9-year-old daughter died of a rare form of leukemia he believes was caused by solvent-laced drinking water at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Her death could have been prevented, he says, if the Marine Corps had followed its own testing regulations.
“I have never been so disillusioned in my life,” says Ensminger, who served 11 of his 25 years in the Marine Corps at the base. “I want the truth. I want accountability. And I fully recognize they will probably pat me in the face with a shovel and blow Taps over me before I get that.”
Ensminger can claim partial victory in his 15-year battle over contamination at Camp Lejeune, where drinking water was tainted with five times as much trichloroethylene (TCE) as the Woburn, Mass., drinking water system made famous in the book and movie “A Civil Action.” Congress recently mandated that VA provide health care for Marines and family members stationed at Camp Lejeune between 1957 and 1987 who are suffering from certain cancers and neurological diseases.
“This bill is confirmation by the president of the United States and Congress that we were harmed by our leaders,” he says.
But the plainspoken former drill instructor and father of four is not standing down. “This is not the end of the issue – this is the end of the first act,” Ensminger says. “They are still withholding information from Congress and the public. There has been no accountability for the people who perpetrated this on us and our families.”
Record Exposure. The Marine Corps acknowledges that as many as 800,000 Marines, family members and civilians drank, swam and showered in Camp Lejeune’s toxin-laden water, the largest exposure of its kind in the nation.
Established as an advanced training base in 1941, the 246-square-mile complex relied on dozens of shallow wells, averaging 40 feet deep, for drinking water. These wells were contaminated by leaking fuel-storage tanks, a chemical dump and discarded industrial solvents. One well was even installed in a corner of a Camp Lejeune landfill where solvents, DDT and other waste was discarded. A civilian dry cleaner near the Camp Lejeune family housing complex where Ensminger lived also polluted the drinking water.
The Marine Corps says the contamination was the unintentional byproduct of an era when federal law didn’t limit the amount of toxins – including tetrachloroethylene (PCE), TCE, benzene and vinyl chloride – in drinking water.
“In the early 1980s, standards and regulations for the treatment and disposal of solvents were just starting to be put into place,” the Corps said in an email response to questions about Camp Lejeune. “The understanding of health effects of these chemicals has evolved. For example, up until 1977, TCE was allowed for use as a general anesthetic, skin wound and surgical disinfectant.”
Health experts call the Marine Corps’ response disingenuous.
“Hiding behind the lack of an official regulation doesn’t fulfill its moral obligation to the Marines and their families,” says Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public Health, who specializes in causes of cancer in workers, community residents and veterans. Massachusetts voluntarily closed two Woburn wells in 1979 after tests revealed a far lower TCE contamination level than that at Camp Lejeune, even though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hadn’t yet set drinking water limits on the carcinogen.
“That was based on guidance from EPA and not a formal regulation, but it was done to protect the public health based on evidence available at the time,” Clapp says. “I see no reason why the Department of the Navy could not have done the same thing to protect its people.”
The medical community, meanwhile, abandoned TCE as an anesthetic because it was lethal. “It was causing people to go into heart failure on the operating table,” Clapp says. “That should have sent up a red flag about TCE exposure in the late 1970s as well.”
“I Had to Be Strong.” Ensminger first went to Camp Lejeune after he graduated from boot camp in 1970. He and his wife lived in a Marine Corps family housing complex called Tarawa Terrace from 1973 to 1975. One of their daughters, Janey, was conceived and carried through most of her first trimester at Camp Lejeune. That timing is key. A developing fetus is so sensitive to the chemicals that were present in Camp Lejeune’s water, Clapp says, that a few hours or days of exposure at the wrong time could cause birth defects, cancers or neurological diseases. There was an eightfold increase in the risk of childhood leukemia among Woburn, Mass., babies whose mothers were exposed to the TCE-contaminated water during pregnancy.
Ensminger and his family returned to Camp Lejeune in 1982, and lived in nearby Jacksonville, N.C. The town had little in the way of community recreation facilities, so his daughters regularly swam in the base swimming pools. Because TCE and the other contaminants can be absorbed through the skin, the pools were just one more source of potential exposure.
Janey Ensminger was diagnosed with childhood leukemia in July 1983. She was 6.
“At first I went into shock,” Ensminger says. “Then it was the hustle and bustle of getting her to a treatment facility.”
They took Janey to Penn State University Medical Center and Duke Children’s Hospital, searching for a cure and answers. No one in his or his wife’s family had ever had cancer. Janey’s illness didn’t make sense.
“After I had a chance to sit down and think about it, the question was why,” Ensminger says. “But these doctors couldn’t – or wouldn’t – answer my nagging question.”
Ensminger told Janey they would fight her cancer together. He told himself that he wouldn’t cry in front of his daughter. “I had to be strong,” he says.
“Every time that child went into a treatment room, she was screaming, ‘Daddy, Daddy, don’t let them hurt me,’” Ensminger says. He finally broke down in front of his daughter in late September 1985. Janey told him she loved him, lapsed into a coma and died 30 minutes later.
“I didn’t just lose my daughter. I feel like I lost my entire life,” Ensminger says.
A Secondary Concern. Why didn’t the Marine Corps begin testing drinking water for total organic pollutants – a class of chemicals including TCE, PCE, benzene and other toxins – in 1963, as Navy regulations required?
The Corps says such testing wouldn’t have made a difference because those early regulations didn’t require specific analysis for TCE, PCE and other toxins. Indeed, the appropriate analytical tools weren’t readily available or commonly used by water utilities in the early 1960s.
But even if the Marine Corps hadn’t identified the specific contaminants, those early tests would have alerted officials to a significant pollution problem and prevented decades of human exposure to solvents and other dangerous chemicals, Ensminger says. At a minimum, the Corps would have discovered that Camp Lejeune’s Hadnot Point Fuel Farm was leaking, eventually allowing as much as 1 million gallons of petroleum to seep into the soil and groundwater.
There is other evidence to suggest that camp commanders were slow to act. Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974 after a national outcry over water pollution. Even the magazine Civil Engineering – hardly a staple of the environmental movement – published a cover story in September 1977 headlined, “Are U.S. cities doing enough to remove cancer-causing chemicals from drinking water?” By then, Camp Lejeune had the third-largest municipal water system in North Carolina and was obligated to meet federal drinking water standards.
An Army analytical lab was finally tapped to test Camp Lejeune’s water in 1980, as required under the Safe Drinking Water Act. It alerted the base several times to high levels of drinking water pollution that were interfering with its analysis, although the lab didn’t identify specific contaminants. Two years later, a private lab also found dangerously high levels of toxins while conducting similar water sampling. In fact, the water was so contaminated that Grainger Labs assumed it had gotten bad samples. It repeated the tests several times in May 1982 and discovered dangerously high levels of TCE and other solvents.
“I was alarmed,” says Mike Hargett, then co-owner of the lab. “By 1982, the toxicological impact of TCE and PCE exposure was well‑established. They should not have been drinking that water.”
Hargett took his concerns to Camp Lejeune officials, and even met with the officer in charge of the water utility – an individual whose name he no longer recalls. “I said, ‘This is not something you want to expose the population to,’” Hargett says.“He dismissed me, saying, ‘This is something we will turn over to the Navy.’”
Camp Lejeune continued to use the contaminated wells for another two and a half years. As a result, water supplied to parts of the base by the Hadnot Point treatment plant contained as much as 1,400 parts per billion of TCE. That’s the highest level of the solvent recorded in a municipal drinking water system in the United States, and 280 times today’s TCE limit.
But the Marine Corps says the source of the pollution was unknown. It also cites the lack of limits on solvents in drinking water as a reason it didn’t take immediate action. In addition, it’s difficult to second-guess decisions made decades ago.
“Although it is impossible to know why a discretionary action was or was not taken more than 25 years ago, one must view the situation in the context of the relevant time period,” the Marine Corps says.
Camp Lejeune finally began closing its highly contaminated wells in late 1984. Even then, the base newspaper mentioned only “trace contamination” and did not warn of any potential health effects. A letter the Marine Corps sent to Tarawa Terrace residents in April 1985 mentioned “minute (trace) amounts of several organic chemicals in the drinking water,” but most of the letter focused on water conservation required by the well closures.
This lackluster response is puzzling for other reasons. The Navy shuttered contaminated water wells at other bases well before Camp Lejeune finally took action. Naval Air Station Willow Grove and Naval Air Warfare Center Warminster – both in Pennsylvania – closed contaminated wells in 1979, according to records Ensminger unearthed.
Hargett’s firm found lower concentrations of contamination in the drinking water at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina in the early 1980s. Hargett notified Cherry Point’s water system manager, who immediately shut down the offending well because the person in charge of the utility “understood the severity of the problem,” he says.
The difference, Hargett believes, is that the problem didn’t come to the attention of the right person at Camp Lejeune until late 1984. “I don’t think they had the right information or understanding of the problem,” he says. A field commander is concerned about having enough water for his troops to bathe, drink and do the work he needs to do. “The details of what was in that water were a secondary concern.” That mentality carried over to the water utility at Camp Lejeune.
Haunted By Questions. In the summer of 1997, almost 12 years after his daughter died, Jerry Ensminger heard a TV news report that said Camp Lejeune’s drinking water had been contaminated with solvents potentially linked to childhood leukemia. “It was like God had opened up the sky and said, ‘Jerry, here is a possible answer to the nagging question that has plagued you,’” he says.
By then, Ensminger had retired from the Marines as a master sergeant and was raising corn and soybeans not far from Camp Lejeune. He started a group called The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten and began digging for answers. Tom Townsend, a former Marine whose son mysteriously died six weeks after his birth at Camp Lejeune, joined Ensminger. Townsend filed more than a thousand requests for Marine Corps and Navy records under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Townsend’s health later forced him to step aside. But Mike Partain, the son of a Camp Lejeune Marine, heard about Ensminger’s work and stepped up. Partain was born at Camp Lejeune in 1968, had just undergone a radical mastectomy for a rare case of male breast cancer and was likewise searching for answers. He dedicated nine months to sorting the records Townsend and Ensminger had obtained and constructing a detailed timeline of Camp Lejeune’s contamination.
Ensminger and his volunteers pored through hundreds of documents, including copies of emails that showed that the Marine Corps considered postponing the release of information about drinking water contamination at Camp Lejeune, as well as a health survey, because the movie version of “A Civil Action” was about to hit theaters. Such timing would bring unwanted attention to the problems at the base, one Camp Lejeune official worried.
Ensminger, meanwhile, made countless trips to Capitol Hill. He’s testified before the House and Senate five times. In 2008, he successfully lobbied Congress to order the Marine Corps to formally notify former Marines, family members and civilians about the Camp Lejeune water contamination. Ensminger scored another victory last August when President Barack Obama signed legislation mandating VA health care for former Camp Lejeune residents. However, there are concerns about how long it will take VA to begin providing care to families.
Ensminger continues his fight for comprehensive epidemiological studies of the people who lived and worked at Camp Lejeune, and is worried about ongoing delays in the release of the results. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry was expected to publish two studies in July: an analysis of birth defects among Camp Lejeune residents and a historical reconstruction of their exposure to contaminated drinking water. The historical reconstruction is particularly important, he says, since it’s the foundation for future Camp Lejeune health studies.
Most of all, Ensminger tries to make sense of the profound betrayal he and others feel from an institution he served and revered – and to answer the questions that still haunt them, such as how and why.
“We still don’t have the whole truth about what happened to us and our families,” Ensminger says. “Janey’s dead. Nothing’s going to help her. But there are other people out there who are still suffering.”
Ken Olsen is a frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.