The US Department of Defense Is One of the World's Biggest Polluters

A pile of gas masks, still dirty from use in Iraq, lies in a refurbishing facility, June 16, 2003, in Camp Lejeune, N.C. Chris Hondros/Getty

The old railroad track, now a bike path, winds through the forest that separates Camp Lejeune from Highway 24, the road that caters to the thousands of Marines stationed here with cheap barbershops, furniture stores for the many young families on the base, a couple of gun shops, a few bars and the requisite lap-dancing club.

None of this familiarly shabby Americana is visible from the verdant path. Trees crowd the sylvan trail, their branches poking through the base's barbed wire fence. You hear more woodpeckers and thrushes than Osprey helicopters. Spend enough time on this lush greenway and you might forget that Camp Lejeune may be, as the former news anchor Dan Rather once said, "the worst example of water contamination this country has ever seen".

Camp Lejeune, in Jacksonville, North Carolina, is a toxic paradox, a place where young men and women were poisoned while in the service of their nation. They swore to defend their land, and the land made them sick. There are hundreds of Camp Lejeunes across the country, military sites contaminated with all manner of pollutants, from chemical weapon graveyards to vast groundwater deposits of gasoline. Soldiers know they might be felled by a sniper's bullet in Baghdad or a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. But waterborne carcinogens are not an enemy they prepared for.

The US Department of Defence is one of the world's worst polluters. Its footprint dwarfs that of any corporation: 4,127 installations spread across 19 million acres of American soil. Maureen Sullivan, who heads the Pentagon's environmental programmes, says her office contends with 39,000 contaminated sites.

Camp Lejeune is one of the Department's 141 Superfund sites, which qualify for special clean up grants from the federal government. That's about 10% of all of America's Superfund sites, easily more than any other polluter. If the definition is broadened beyond Pentagon installations, about 900 of the 1200 or so Superfund sites in America are abandoned military facilities or sites that otherwise support military needs.

"Almost every military site in this country is seriously contaminated," said John D Dingell, a soon-to-retire Michigan congressman, who served in the Second World War. "Lejeune is one of many." They form a sort of toxic archipelago across the land from McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, California, where radioactive waste was found, to the Massachusetts Military Reservation on Cape Cod, poisoned by explosives and perchlorate, a rocket fuel component that is a major Pentagon pollutant.

But Camp Lejeune has become a test case for whether the military can defend American soil without ruining it. To those who suffered at Camp Lejeune, an ugly truth about the US military has revealed itself. "I would never recommend to anyone that they go into the Marine Corps," said former Marine corporal Peter Devereaux, who has good reason to believe that his breast cancer is the result of drinking Camp Lejeune's tainted water. The Marines, he said, "are like a mafia".

Jerry Ensminger would agree. He joined the Marines during the Vietnam War, in which his brother had been wounded, and was assigned to Camp Lejeune in 1973. He and his wife lived on the base's northern edge. Their second daughter, Janey, was born in 1976. Photographs show a pretty girl with cheeks like apples. At the age of six, Janey was diagnosed with leukemia. In the photographs that follow, her hair is cut short. Deposits of fat, from treatments, pad her body. She knows things no child should have to know. On September 24th, 1985, aged nine, Janey Ensminger died.

There were many Janeys at Lejeune, and some didn't make it through their first year of life. During the 1960s and 70s the camp was host to a grim dance of miscarriages, stillbirths and inexplicable postnatal deaths: Christopher Townsend, dead at 31⁄2 months from a legion of ailments; Michelle McLaughlin, dead at birth; Eileen Marie Stasiak, dead in the womb. Ricky Gagnoni, alive a single month, started to bleed from his mouth as his mother fed him and died the next day. So many infants perished at Camp Lejeune that a nearby cemetery had a section mourning parents named "Baby Heaven".

Finding no other answers, grieving parents turned guilt upon themselves. "I blamed myself for years," Mary Freshwater, testified later. "I hated myself, I hated my body, because I thought I had failed my children." Standing at a podium, in tears, she held up the pyjamas her infant son was wearing when he died. She had never washed the vomit he'd left on them. She said that after his death, her doctors urged her and her husband to try again. They did. And their next son died, too.

As early as 1981 officials at the base were told that the drinking water consumed by the base's 100,000 or so residents each day was full of what toxicologists call "methyl-ethyl death." But the first batch of groundwater wells was not shut down until 1984. The base became a Superfund site in 1989, but even today, the full extent of the camp's contamination is not known. America's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) isn't even sure how many people have been poisoned by the water, though estimates suggest it was consumed by a million people.

How much victims deserve in financial compensation for their grief is the most complex question of all. Ensminger is one of about 3,500 people involved in litigation against the Department of Defence. They thought the Marine Corps, which proudly professes to leave no man behind, would own up to its mistakes. Now, they know better.

Kevin Shipp was an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency at Camp Stanley, near San Antonio's heavily polluted Kelly Air Force Base. He and his family lived at the base, which is believed to be a weapons storage facility, for two years starting in June 1999. Unlike the largely unsuspecting residents of Camp Lejeune, the Shipps quickly realised that something was amiss. One of his sons told The New York Times that "the house that our family was moved into was planted on top of a lot of buried ammunition. One time, me and my little brother dug up a mustard gas shell."

A company of Marines participate in a training march on Feb. 22, 2013 at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Scott Olson/Getty

"My children were bleeding from their noses, vomiting, had severe headaches and strange rashes on the exposed areas of their skin," Shipp later wrote. "My wife became bedridden with headaches so severe, she had to be placed on morphine... I began to have burning in my lungs... and was losing my short-term memory."

In 2002, Shipp left the CIA and sued his employer for placing him in a mould-ridden house. The case was eventually dismissed on the basis of the State Secrets Privilege. Shipp described Camp Stanley as a "toxic mess". Not only is it littered with ageing munitions, but its water was poisoned in a fashion strikingly similar to Camp Lejeune's. "Frankly," Shipp said, "they don't care."

Camp Lejeune, built in 1941, is 620 square km in area, making it the largest Marine base east of the Mississippi and the second largest in America after Camp Pendleton, near San Diego. Situated at the swampy mouth of the New River, it is an ideal training ground for amphibious landings. From here, Marines shipped out to the Pacific during the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam. In the decade before the camp was built, the chemical industry saw the advent of the "safety solvents" TCE and tetrachloroethylene (PCE). These were chemical cleaning agents of the organochlorine group: TCE was a degreaser for machine parts; PCE was used in dry cleaning. A military base is rife with machines. This sounds obvious, but it's striking to see all those tanks and airplanes poised for battle. Part of that readiness is cleanliness, which most military mechanics achieved, until recently, by washing grease-covered parts in TCE.

In 2004, a former Marine named Joseph Paliotti decided to clear his conscience. He was dying from cancer, and suspected that 16 years working on the base had something to do with it. "We'd come down there, we used to dump it: DDT, cleaning fluid, batteries, transformers, vehicles," he told an interviewer. "I knew sooner or later something was going to happen." Several days later, Paliotti died.

Most people don't know that the chemicals that clean a shirt are about as carcinogenic as those that clean an airplane engine. One of the places at Camp Lejeune that cleaned marines' uniforms was ABC One Hour Cleaners, just a few metres from the edge of the base. The dry-cleaners, which opened 1964 and ended its on-site cleaning service in 2005, did nothing different from the thousands of other dry-cleaners in America; it used PCE as a cleaning solvent. Some of the PCE sludge was used to fill potholes; the liquid waste ended up in the ground, like the TCE used to clean machines across the road, behind the barbed wire.

The toxins percolated through the sandy soil of Camp Lejeune, into the shallow Castle Hayne aquifer, from which the base drew its water. Also flowing into the soil was benzene from the Hadnot Point fuel farm. A component of gasoline, benzene is an aromatic hydrocarbon – a carcinogen that readily enters the body.

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. Eventually it formed an underground layer 5m deep, a carcinogenic band essentially covering the aquifer.

Among those who drank from that aquifer was Mike Partain, who was born on base. His father was a Marine, as was his grandfather. He lived in the same housing complex where the Ensmingers conceived their daughter Janey. He joined the Navy but was discharged because of a debilitating rash that would overtake his body without explanation. Eventually, he ended up in Florida, where he was a teacher and, later, an insurance adjuster. Married with four children, Partain was in good health until the age of 39. He has since divorced.

"My marriage didn't survive Lejeune," he said. Toxins are patient. As he would later write for the website of Semper Fi, a documentary about Camp Lejeune, in April 2007 "my wife gave me a hug before bed one night. As she did, her hand came across a curious bump situated above my right nipple. There was no pain, but it felt very odd." Partain went for tests, which revealed an almost incredible diagnosis: breast cancer.

Male breast cancer is rare enough in the -general population, especially for someone with no family history of the disease. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, only about seven breast cancer victims out of 1,000 are men. Yet it turned out that many other men who'd lived on Camp Lejeune had developed the disease: Partain said he knew of 85.

The Superfund law, passed in 1980, did not apply to federal facilities until 1986. Once it was exposed to litigation, the Department of Defence could no longer dismiss the environmental movement as a mere leftist nuisance, though successive administrations tried.

Marines learn night-fire techniques during a combat marksmanship course on Feb. 20, 2013 at Camp Lejeune. Scott Olson/Getty

The 9/11 attacks proved an opportunity for the Pentagon to push back against oversight. In 2003 the Pentagon asked for an exemption from environmental laws assuming that Americans were more afraid of terrorists than polluters. "The manner in which certain environmental laws are being applied is seriously hampering our military training opportunities," Defence Secretary -Donald Rumsfeld wrote in April 2003 to EPA head Christine Todd Whitman.

Military officials did not anticipate the resistance they would encounter on Capitol Hill. Perhaps the most vociferous critic of the exemptions was Dingell. "Nowhere has a single set of legislative proposals had so much audacity and so little merit," he said during one hearing. "The Defence Department is supposed to defend the nation, not to defile it."

Despite an industry-friendly White House on its side, the Pentagon didn't get an exemption. Rather, it brought national attention to the then little-known problem of military pollution, and Camp Lejeune became the prime example of what happened when the Department of Defence was left to police itself. Sullivan, the department's chief environmental officer, said that to clean up all of the Pentagon's pollution would cost American taxpayers $27 billion.

Nevertheless she is upbeat about the challenges before her, noting that the Department of Defence has done all it could to meet new regulations. Others are sceptical of the Pentagon's efforts to come clean. One report by the US Government Accountability Office concluded that "identifying and investigating these hazards will take decades."

Today, Camp Lejeune is a tidy base of red-brick buildings and thick groves of pine. Occasionally, one sees vistas of the New River, which opens into a bright blue bay. The base is home to a rare variety of woodpecker, and the Venus fly-trap. The place looks ordinary, pretty in places. It is like a body whose wounds have healed, though the scars are still visible. Officials there say proudly that the water is now probably the cleanest in the nation. Solar panels have already been installed on 2,000 homes, improbably making Camp Lejeune one of the largest residential communities in the nation to use solar energy. Even more improbable, earlier this year Camp Lejeune won an environmental restoration award from the Pentagon, beating bases across the services.

In 2012, Jerry Ensminger and Mike Partain won a victory when President Barack Obama signed the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act, which is supposed to ensure that those sickened by Lejeune water get medical treatment. The law is also known as the Janey Ensminger Act, a nod to the father who turned his grief into righteous anger.

Ensminger said the process has been like "pulling teeth". He wasn't exaggerating. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled against 25 North Carolina residents who sued an electronic firm for contaminating their well water, a ruling that could make it harder for Camp Lejeune lawsuits to proceed.

"I'm not quitting," Ensminger said. North -Carolina legislators rushed to pass legislation that would preserve the legal claims of both CTS and Camp Lejeune victims. (North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed the bill in late June.) "You've got to watch these people like a hawk," he said of the Marines. The armed forces took his daughter. They took many other lives, too, without firing a single shot.