The National Journal’s managing editor investigates “the largest and worst incidence of a poisoned water supply in history.”
Its coastal perch, rivers and swamps, tangled forests and humid climate made 152,000 undeveloped acres in North Carolina perfect for the establishment, in 1941, of an advance-force training base. From Camp Lejeune, the Marines would practice landings that culminated in heroics in foreign wars. Over the decades, however, the base also became a dump for diesel and gasoline, cleaning solvents, chemical weapons, gas cylinders, insecticides, waste oil and battery acid, pesticides, grease and mercury. Burn dumps for garbage, pits containing industrial waste, construction debris, ordnance and mortar shells all dotted the landscape and bubbled into a toxic stew that seeped into an already precarious water supply. Magner (Poisoned Legacy: The Human Cost of BP’s Rise to Power, 2011) chronicles the resulting catastrophe—heartbreaking stories of infant deaths, a wide range of grisly birth defects and an alarming array of cancers—by interleaving his narrative with intimate portraits of affected Marines and their families. Nearly as shocking, though, is his tale of the Marine Corps’ slow awakening to the problem, its unconscionable foot-dragging, its unwillingness to answer questions or to study the adverse health effects linked to the chemicals found in the water. Only the persistent, organized efforts of “a highly motivated group of former Marines,” Lejeune victims whose lives were capsized, first by the Corps’ negligence and then by its indifference, led to action that culminated in a 2012 federal law authorizing medical care to Lejeune Marines and their families. Efforts to broaden that statute, as well as a variety of lawsuits, continue.
A fast-moving, smartly detailed story of an environmental disaster compounded by the Corps’ broken promise—“We take care of our own”—to the men who served and suffered.