In January 2000, Tom Townsend was reading “Leatherneck,” a journal for Marine retirees, when he stumbled upon a small article titled, “Did you drink Lejeune water during 1968 to 1985?”
The article described a federal survey of women who were pregnant during that time at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Townsend’s son Christopher died in 1967, three months after his birth, from a heart defect when the family lived at Lejeune, the largest Marine base on the East Coast.
Townsend, a retired major from Moscow, Idaho, now believes contaminated drinking water on base caused Christopher’s death. For the past four years, Townsend has been on a quest to force the Marine Corps to take responsibility for it and for the illnesses of potentially thousands of military personnel and their families who passed through Camp Lejeune.
The Marine Corps, responding in writing to questions from The Spokesman-Review, said it “cares deeply about our current and former Marines and their families” and supports federal efforts to find out who might have been affected by contamination before there were federal drinking water standards.
Townsend, 73, has been joined by a network of fellow retired Marines who believe the Corps has not done all it can to help them or identify potential victims of the contamination.
“We have made life hell for the Marine Corps,” Townsend said, “and intend to continue doing so until we get some resolution or we die.”
Though Christopher Townsend was not born premature, he was in trouble from the outset, the result of a malformed heart.
After Christopher’s birth, Townsend was sent to Camp Garcia at Vieques, Puerto Rico. He was there when he received a ham radio call from his wife, Anne, that their son was in serious trouble. She was desperate and asked him to come home to Camp Lejeune.
“My son is in imminent danger of dying, and I think I should be there,” he told commanding officers. But he was denied permission to leave.
He said he left anyway, without orders, on a plane that brought a senior officer to Camp Garcia.
“We’ll talk about a court-martial later,” he said when he was challenged at the air field. But no charges were brought against Townsend, who was the son of a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and veteran of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
Two days later, Christopher died at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. If it hadn’t been his heart, Townsend said, it would have been something else. An autopsy showed virtually all of the baby’s internal organs were damaged.
“I sort of accepted it as God’s will,” Townsend said. But his wife blamed herself. “She always felt she did something wrong.”
After reading the “Leatherneck” article in 2000, Townsend began asking questions - of the Department of the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Departments of Treasury and Justice, the Office of Management and Budget, the Environmental Protection Agency and several members of Congress.
At a time when the Bush administration has backed a request by the Pentagon to exempt military bases from key environmental laws, Townsend hasn’t stopped asking questions.
“It’s fairly obvious there was a conspiracy,” he said. The Marine Corps recognized the potential size of the liability and “they have been trying to minimalize and marginalize the whole thing.”
Extent of contamination
Tests done in 1982 of the groundwater beneath the base showed levels of trichloroethylene (TCE) as high as 1,400 parts per billion, 280 times the level now considered safe, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). The chemical degreaser was poured into the sandy soil and leaked from storage tanks buried on the base.
Across the street from the main entrance to Camp Lejeune, a dry-cleaning business dumped tetrachloroethylene (PCE) into the ground. ATSDR reported PCE levels at Camp Lejeune as high as 43 times what is now considered safe.
These compounds, and other chlorinated hydrocarbons found at Camp Lejeune, have been linked to birth defects, stunted growth, damaged kidneys and livers, weakened immune systems and childhood cancers, including leukemia.
Marines and their families lived in base housing using this water until 1985, when the wells were closed five years after testing began.
“None of us have ever been notified that anything happened yet,” Townsend said.
The Marine Corps told The Spokesman-Review it informed the state of North Carolina of the existence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in Lejeune water as early as December 1984 and told base residents, published press releases and a described water quality in its base newspaper.
The Marine Corps also said it has assisted the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) in identifying potential participants in its studies of the health effects of Lejeune water contamination beginning in 1999.
The only surveys that have been done, Townsend said, were by ATSDR, which interviewed women who were pregnant at the base between 1968 and 1985. That time period is arbitrary, he said, and only used because 1968 was the year North Carolina began putting birth records on a computerized database.
“The base is a waste dump,” Townsend said of Camp Lejeune, which was added to the Superfund list of the nation’s most contaminated sites in 1989. “What I’m asking for today is that the Navy and ATSDR go back and look at everybody from 1958 on.”
He believes the toxic chemicals had been accumulating in Camp LeJeune groundwater since it was built in the early 1940s. He said he saw transmission fluid from tanks and amphibious vehicles drained into ditches dug for that purpose at Hadnot Point, the industrial area of Camp Lejeune and the site of the base’s original water treatment facility.
Townsend said, “all kinds of oils, lubricants, cleaners” were dumped into the groundwater through sandy soil. “No one was checking for that because there were no kind of EPA requirements to look for that stuff at the time.”
In its written response, the Marine Corps said that though it was aware of the presence of VOCs in Camp Lejeune water as early as 1980, “there were no regulatory standards established for these compounds at this time.” The Environmental Protection Agency, however, did have suggested levels, and the Marine Corps said the base’s water tested below these levels for TCE and only slightly above for PCE.
Townsend’s family drank this water while living on base from late 1965 until the summer of 1967. Anne Townsend asked to be included in the ATSDR survey and was denied because she was outside the time frame set for the study.
So far, the study has identified 103 cases of birth defects or childhood cancers among nearly 12,600 births, three to five times the normal rate, according to a recent report by the Washington Post.
These cases are not confirmed, the Marine Corps told The Spokesman-Review.
ATSDR concluded that “there may be an association between the drinking water and adverse pregnancy outcomes” and that additional studies were needed.
Looking for answers
What studies have been done, Townsend said, are “inconclusive by design.”
“If you don’t know where the people lived, and you don’t know when they lived there, and you don’t know where the water came from, how the hell can you come up with a study about exposures?” Townsend asked.
Along the way, Townsend was joined in his quest for answers by other retired Marines who spent time at Lejeune: a master sergeant who lost his child to leukemia, a base obstetrician who has leukemia, a lance corporal whose children have suffered a lifetime of ailments and developmental disabilities.
Townsend calls his allies Rottweilers or Dobermans “because Marines are either big and mean or skinny and mean.” Either way, they are tenacious in their hounding of the Corps.
“I’d like the Marine Corps to admit that they are the cause of all this misery and notify all the young men and women that served their country that it is the cause of their exposure,” Townsend said.
He wants the government to help these people and consider them for disability compensation.
Townsend said Christopher is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, waiting for his Marine father to end this last fight. Anne Townsend has already realized some satisfaction from her husband’s research into the contamination at Camp Lejeune.
“I’m very pleased to find out what it is that caused the demise of my child,” she said, “because I always thought it was something I did. And what I did was drink water.”