Camp Lejeune Water Contamination vs. Flint, MI: Which Was Worse?

Doug Mann

The Camp Lejeune water contamination disaster has wreaked havoc on many families. How does what happened to the water in Camp Lejeune compare to the Flint, MI water crisis? Comparing the two incidents sheds light on important public safety issues.

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Access to clean water is something that many of us take for granted—we turn on the tap, and safe, clean water comes out. But recent events have pointed to the fact that, even in industrialized nations, clean water is not guaranteed. Water is, quite simply, essential to our lives. So when things go wrong, we have a duty as a society to do what we can to fix them.

Sometimes the organizations responsible for making sure that the water is safe need to be held accountable, and to do that, a lawsuit may be required. Mass tort cases are often the only way to ensure that issues are resolved and injured people get the restitution they need to recover.

In this blog post, we will compare the severity of the Camp Lejeune water contamination tragedy with another water disaster that made national headlines; the Flint, MI, lead contamination crisis that rocked the nation.

Camp LejeuneFlint, Michigan
ContaminantsVolatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)Lead, Legionnaires disease, Trihalomethanes
People AffectedPeople who lived at Camp Lejeune between 1942 and 1987Anyone exposed to the public water supply in Flint, Michigan, after 2014
InjuriesCancerInfertility and Miscarriage, Kidney and Liver DamageDevelopmental disabilities, Stunted growth, Pneumonia (Legionnaires disease)Cancer
LawsuitsCamp Lejeune Justice Act passed in 2022It offers medical help and resets the statute of limitations to August 2024Partial settlement reached in 2021Ongoing class action lawsuit due in court in 2023

Water Contamination at Fort Lejeune

Where Is Fort Lejeune?

Fort Lejeune is a Marine Corps Base Camp located in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Camp Lejeune was established in 1942 and is still an active base, although the water distribution plants that were contaminated are no longer in use. The United States Government states that the water at Fort Lejeune has been safe since 1987.

What Contaminants Are Found In the Water?

Multiple volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were found in the water coming from contaminated plants. These compounds included trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE). These VOCs are carcinogens and can also impact organs such as the liver and the kidneys.

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How Did the Contaminants Get Into the Water Supply?

There are several sources that contributed to the contamination of the water at Camp Lejeune. The water at one plant was contaminated with TCE from underground storage tanks that leaked and improper waste disposal. The water at another plant was contaminated with PCE due to its proximity to a dry cleaning service. PCE is a chemical that is often used in dry cleaning.

How Were People Affected?

Water contamination at Camp Lejeune caused multiple health issues, including:

  • Bladder cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Female infertility
  • Hepatic steatosis
  • Kidney cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Lung cancer
  • Miscarriage
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Myelodysplastic syndromes
  • Neurobehavioral effects
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Renal toxicity
  • Scleroderma

There may be other health issues caused by exposure to VOCs from Camp Lejeune. However, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs has identified the conditions listed above as presumptive conditions, meaning that it is assumed if you developed one of these conditions while living at Camp Lejeune, it was caused by the water contamination.

What Lawsuits Arose from the Contamination?

The first lawsuit concerning the water at Camp Lejeune was brought in 2009 by the wife of a Marine who lived on base. In 2016, several lawsuits were consolidated into a multidistrict litigation, or mass tort, suit. This suit was dismissed and appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, who refused to hear the appeal. The government denied any liability or benefits to those affected.

In 2022, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 was signed into law. This act asserts that the water at Camp Lejeune was contaminated and resets the statute of limitations for these cases. Cases can be brought until August 2024.

Water Contamination in Flint, Michigan

Where is Flint?

Flint is a city in the state of Michigan with a population of about 80,000 as of 2021. It has had water contamination issues since at least 2014, when the city’s water source changed from Lake Huron to the Flint River.

What Contaminants Are Found In the Water?

Lead is the primary concern with the water in the city of Flint. There have also been outbreaks of Legionnaires Disease and elevated levels of trihalomethanes found in the water.

How Did the Contaminants Get Into the Water Supply?

The problems with the water in Flint began with a single decision: to change the water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. This was done in an attempt to cut costs.

When the water source was changed, thousands of gallons of contaminated water flowed through old water systems, including lead pipes. While the lead pipes had been safely in use for years, the contaminated water began to degrade them and allow them to leach lead into the water. Even after the water supply was switched back to Lake Huron, the damage from the Flint River was done, and lead levels continue to be a major problem to public health.

The water itself was also contaminated with bacteria, including Legionella. Legionella causes Legionnaires disease, a serious type of pneumonia. 

In an attempt to kill the bacteria, extra chlorine was added to the water supply. Unfortunately, this had an unintended effect. When too much chlorine is used, it can lead to the creation of trihalomethanes, which are chemicals that can be dangerous to humans. For example, chloroform is a type of trihalomethane.

How Were People Affected?

Catastrophically, in a lot of cases. Lead is incredibly dangerous to developing fetuses and young children, causing damage to the brain and nervous system, slowing growth, and increasing learning disabilities, hearing problems, and speech problems.

Legionnaires disease can cause acute respiratory issues up to and including death.

Trihalomethanes are carcinogens that can also cause acute poisoning.

Taken together, the three main water-borne issues in Flint created a perfect storm to potentially sicken anyone who came in contact with contaminated water.

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What Lawsuits Arose from the Contamination?

Lawsuits regarding the Flint water crisis began as early as 2016. Settlements in 2016 and 2017 led to Flint residents receiving bottled water delivery and money being set aside to fix lead water pipes. But progress has been frustratingly slow, and bottled water delivery was discontinued while many Flint residents still didn’t have safe water.

Many lawsuits have been brought against the City of Flint and the State of Michigan, including a partial settlement in 2021 that allowed Flint residents to recover funds through mid-2022. A large certified class-action lawsuit is still working its way through the courts. It is scheduled to come to trial in 2023. However, any money paid out to individuals in the class-action suit is likely to be remediary and not proactive. Much work remains to be done on the infrastructure in Flint to make the water safe once more.

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