April 1, 2010

Contractor's Mistakes Increase Your Liability

Camp Lejeune in North Carolina

Eight hundred and fifty former residents of Camp Lejeune are suing the United States Marine Corp for $4 billion in damages for exposure to toxic tap water, which some claim is responsible for numerous cases of cancer and birth defects. As many as 75,000 Marines and their families, almost 1 million individuals, living at Camp Lejeune, a Marine base in North Carolina base between 1957 and 1987, received drinking water contaminated with several toxic chemicals, including benzene, tetrachloroethylene (PCE), and trichloroethylene (TCE). The former residents believe the Marines knowingly failed to report the hazardous levels of benzene in the tap water.


In 1984, an environmental contractor's test results showed benzene in a well near the base's Hadnot Point Fuel Farm at levels of 380 parts per billion (ppb). The EPA's maximum contaminant level for benzene in drinking water is 5 ppb.

In 1985, the reported amount of benzene in the drinking water was reduced from 380 ppb to 38 ppb, still seven times higher than the MCL. The discrepancy between the two reported quantities was never explained.

In 1994, the contractor's final report listed benzene as a contaminant on the site, but did not state the levels.

In 1996, during a meeting with Moon Township, the contractor indicated that the fuel farm at the site had lost 800,000 gallons of fuel, only 500,000 gallons of which had been recovered. They stated that benzene was "in the deeper portion of the aquifer" and that the "fuel farm is definitely the source."

Benzene Hazards

The EPA has classified benzene as a Group A, human carcinogen, the highest level. According to the EPA's Technology Transfer Network Air Toxics Web Site, long-term exposure to benzene causes various disorders in the blood, including reduced numbers of red blood cells and aplastic anemia in occupational settings; reproductive effects have been reported for women exposed by inhalation to high levels; adverse effects on the developing fetus have been observed in animal tests, and an increased incidence of leukemia (cancer of the tissues that form white blood cells) have been observed in humans occupationally exposed to benzene.

Responsible Party and Contractor Liabilities

Due to poor data quality control, poor project management, and inconsistent reporting from the contractor, the Marine Corps could face increased liability from the former residents of Camp Lejeune and government oversight agencies. The Marine Corps will have to answer questions as to what role they had in the disparity of their contractor's reports and whether they knew of the concealed amounts of benzene in the base's drinking water. Additionally, the Marine Corps will have to prove that they did not have the contractor falsely report the benzene concentrations.

Captain Brian Block, a Marine Corps spokesman, states that the discrepancy is probably just a mistake on the part of the contractor. Kyla Bennett, who spent ten years as an enforcement officer for the Environmental Protection Agency before becoming an ecologist and environmental attorney, reviewed the different reports and said it was difficult to conclude innocent mistakes were made in the contractor's documents.

Regardless of whether the discrepancies in the benzene reporting values were innocent mistakes on the contractor's part or concerted efforts to conceal dangerous benzene levels, the responsible party for the site continues to be the United States Marine Corps, and they will have to take on the additional burden of proving their innocence. Choosing an environmental contractor that is committed to quality data control and management and ethical standards will prevent unnecessary liability in the future.

For more information, email us at info@e2env.com.

Sources: Report on Marines' Water Omitted Cancer Chemical

Image credit: The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten

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