WASHINGTON — Federal scientists studying the history of water contamination at Camp Lejeune, N.C., have learned of another source of leaking fuel — this one less than a football field away from a drinking well that once served thousands of Marines and their families.
The well was closed in December 1984 after benzene was found in the water.
The source of contamination that scientists now are exploring was once an on-base refueling station within an area of the Marine base known as Hadnot Point. The refueling facility, Building 1115, contained seven underground storage tanks that ranged in size from 1,000 to 5,000 gallons.
The extent of the contamination on the Marine base — and its sources — are important to federal scientists at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, who are trying to understand the health effects of the contaminants in the base's water.
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Officials at ATSDR were unable to respond Thursday to e-mailed questions about Building 1115.
It's estimated that from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s as many as a million people were exposed to water contaminated with trichloroethylene, or TCE; tetrachloroethylene, or PCE; vinyl chloride; benzene, a key component of gasoline and a known human carcinogen; and other chemicals.
McClatchy has reviewed hundreds of documents about the chemical contamination at Camp Lejeune that report finding benzene in untreated groundwater at levels thousands of times higher than the federal drinking water standard permits, and that show benzene has seeped into the deep aquifer under the base.
Nearly three decades after contaminated wells were closed, monitoring wells are still finding poisons at thousands of times the drinking water safety standards in the aquifers below the military base, according to documents that McClatchy obtained from the state of North Carolina.
As recently as this January, benzene was found at levels as high as 18,600 parts per billion in water from one untreated groundwater monitoring well at Lejeune. The federal standard for drinking water from the Environmental Protection Agency is 5 parts per billion; the state of North Carolina pegs it at 1 part per billion.
Monitoring wells have been installed around the base to help officials understand what contaminants remain in the groundwater.
There's no evidence that Lejeune's drinking water is contaminated today, but the plumes that still lurk in the underground aquifers are testimony to how extensive the contamination was at the base — and that much of it persists.
The Marine Corps and the Department of the Navy are undergoing an extensive, multimillion-dollar cleanup program under the oversight of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
A 1993 review of environmental treatment options found that storage tanks containing fuel, cleaning solvents and other chemicals were buried at sites across Camp Lejeune for years.
Many of the storage tanks leaked, but how badly is unknown. However, officials have estimated that more than 1 million gallons of fuel may have seeped into the sandy soil at the base, according to memos obtained by McClatchy.
A 1988 monitoring report describes a 15-foot layer of fuel floating on top of the water table a few feet below the surface of a fuel farm at the Hadnot Point Industrial Area. The same report found evidence of benzene in monitoring wells at levels of as much as 29,000 parts per billion.
Other documents show that in 2006, benzene at levels of more than 7,000 parts per billion was being found far underground, in what's known as the deep aquifer.
Fuel floats on water, and normally wouldn't be found so far underground.
A contractor told the military in 2008 that over-pumping by the base's wells appeared to have sucked fuel and other contaminants into the deep aquifer. The contaminants then became trapped, and many of them remain there.
The transcript of a 1988 technical review committee meeting of federal, state and military officials reveals the scientists' concern about benzene as they discussed the Hadnot Point fuel farm.
According to the meeting transcript, one official mentioned a monitoring test that found benzene in the aquifer at 30 parts per billion. He described the test result this way: "Fairly low, but still toxic enough that you don't want to touch that water."
Over the years, investigators discovered what appeared to be new spills after the problematic water supply wells were closed. For example, several reports in the early 1990s showed that another underground storage tank, at Building 1613 in the Hadnot Point Industrial Area, appeared to have no fuel leaks.
In 1996, however, a consultant's report showed that an investigation at Building 1613 found TCE and a petroleum plume.
Scientists studying the fuel contamination have known about and been studying the effects of more than a dozen underground storage tanks at the Hadnot Point fuel farm. The tanks were about 1,200 feet from a drinking well called Hadnot Point 602.
That well was closed in December 1984 after a Navy contractor found high levels of benzene in it. Its closure prompted a review of other wells on the base, several of which also were shut down.
Scientists then learned about Building 1115, with its seven underground tanks about 300 feet from Hadnot Point Well 602.
"You could literally stand at this site and throw a golf ball and hit Well 602," said Jerry Ensminger, a Marine veteran and former Lejeune resident whose daughter, Janey, died in 1985 of childhood leukemia, which he thinks was caused by the contaminated water.
"God, each time they switched on Well 602, it was, 'Eureka! Benzene for everybody,' " said Ensminger, who's testified before Congress about the contamination.
The reports on Building 1115 are part of a series of documents about contamination throughout the Hadnot Point Industrial Area that scientists have combed in the past year. Many of them were part of contractors' reports and memos between the military and the state of North Carolina written during the 1990s and 2000s.
The tanks at Building 1115 were installed as early as 1943, just as Camp Lejeune was taking shape, and were dug up 50 years later, according to the documents recently obtained by McClatchy.
A site contractor removing the tanks warned the Marines that the tanks showed signs of leakage, that contaminated soil had been removed, and that there were "signs of contamination over the entire site."
The contractor recommended turning the site over to a federal environmental agency.
Later, government officials indicated that the two plumes from Building 1115 and the Hadnot Point fuel farm — some reports show three plumes — had merged.
Documents in 2000 showed that years after the fuel tanks were removed from the Building 1115 site and the Hadnot Point fuel farm, 4,000 feet of piping remained underground, and that it appeared to have connected the two sites.
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