1 of 5
Associated Press
A faded "DANGER" sign hangs on the front door of the former ABC Cleaners in Jacksonville, N.C., on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. Solvents illegally dumped by the former dry cleaners leaked into the water supply for the Camp Lejeune Marine base, contributing to one of the worst cases of drinking water contamination in U.S. history.

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — Purple wildflowers sprout in abundance around the bright-yellow pipe, one of several jutting from the sandy soil in this unassuming patch of grass and mud. A dirty hose runs from the pipe to an idling truck and into a large tank labeled, "NON-POTABLE WATER."

This is the former Hadnot Point fuel farm, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune's main fuel depot until it was ordered closed in the 1980s. At one point, a layer of gasoline 15 feet thick floated atop the groundwater here, and this "fluid vapor recovery" truck is part of the continuing effort to remove it.

"He's skimming that contaminate out of that well, into this tank," civilian Bob Lowder, head of environmental quality for the base, said during a recent tour. "We'll take that off for recondition or disposal, as appropriate."

The coastal base is the site of what's considered the worst case of drinking-water contamination in the nation's history. But the Marines stress that that's just what it is — history.

Of the more than 600 polluted sites scattered about the 170-square-mile base, about five dozen remain to be addressed. ABC Cleaners — the offsite business that dumped cancer-causing solvents into the Lejeune water table — stands vacant, the paint flaking from its rotting clapboards.

Wells tainted with gasoline, pesticides and toxic degreasers have been isolated, and technicians test the water from the base's treatment plants monthly. Marine families stationed at Lejeune enjoy what Lowder proudly describes as "the safest and most tested drinking water that they can find."

"We probably have the most aggressive sampling regime for our drinking water than anybody else in the nation," he says. "Maybe in the world."

The worst of the contamination occurred during the height of the Cold War. But records suggest that toxic substances began leaking — or were being intentionally dumped — into the ground almost immediately after the Department of War carved a spot for the 1st Marine Division out of the coastal pine forest at the mouth of the New River in late 1941.

Workers say there were no guidelines for disposing of chemicals on the base until the mid-1980s. A building once used as storage the toxic insecticide DDT later housed a day care and nursery; PCB-laden transformer oil was routinely spread on roads to keep down the dust.

Researchers believe two of the most serious pollutants — trichlorethylene and percholoroethylene — first exceeded today's maximum allowable levels in the groundwater in the early 1950s.

At least one measurement taken in 1982 found levels of TCE — even then widely banned as toxic to humans — of 1,400 parts per billion in the base's drinking water supply. That is five times the levels discovered around the same time in Woburn, Mass., scene of a childhood leukemia cluster recounted in the book and movie "A Civil Action."

ABC Cleaners turned out to be the primary source of the TCE and PCE contamination in the well water provided to Tarawa Terrace, a military housing development. But subsequent testing revealed even more extensive pollution from an outdated, poorly maintained fuel farm in the Hadnot Point area, where the Naval hospital and housing for most of the enlisted men and their families were located.

Comment on this story

A June 1980 facilities survey found a general state of decay at the aging Hadnot Point fuel farm — the result of decades of poor maintenance and "insufficient funding."

As late as spring 1988, the underground tanks at Hadnot Point were leaking about 1,500 gallons of fuel a month — a total of more than 1.1 million gallons, by some estimates.

In 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added the base to its National Priorities List.

Since then, contractors have dug up dozens of steel drums and underground storage tanks, removed spent ordnance and hauled off tons of contaminated soil.