CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. (AP) – Ron Poirier couldn't escape the feeling that his cancer was somehow a punishment.
As a young Marine electronics technician at Camp Lejeune in the mid-1970s, the Massachusetts man figured he'd dumped hundreds of gallons of toxic solvents onto the ground. It would be decades before he realized that he had unknowingly contributed to the worst drinking water contamination in the country's history – and, perhaps, to his own premature death.
“It's just a terrible thing,” the 58-year-old veteran told The Associated Press shortly before succumbing to esophageal cancer at a Cape Cod nursing facility on May 3.
“Once I found out, it's like, `God! I added to the contamination.“’
The cancer that killed Poirier is one of more than a dozen diseases and conditions with recognized links to a toxic soup brewing beneath the sprawling coastal base between the 1950s and mid-1980s, when officials finally ordered tainted drinking-water wells closed. As many as a million Marines, family members and civilian employees are believed to have been exposed to several cancer-causing chemicals.
In the final weeks of his life, it was not just cancer that was gnawing at Poirier.
The Brewster, Mass., man was with the 8th Communications Battalion at Lejeune from 1974 to 1976, working in a shop installing and repairing top-secret radio components. The shop was located just south of the Hadnot Point Industrial Area, right in the middle of a cluster of drinking water wells serving one of the base's main residential sections.
There was plenty of suspicion about the possible health effects of handling and ingesting trichloroethylene, or TCE. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had not yet established regulations for limiting exposure levels.
In a mid-March telephone interview from his home, Poirier said one of his jobs was to recondition circuit boards and other components. Working in a space with little or no ventilation, he used his bare hands to bathe the components in a pan of the TCE-laced cleaner or spray them down with an aerosolized version.
“It was also a great degreaser,” he said in halting tones, stopping often to catch his breath. “And it would leave the circuit boards absolutely clean.”
And it was cheap.
According to the manufacturer, the chemicals were to be used only once. Poirier chuckled when he recalled orders not to dump the stuff down the toilet, “because it would kill the bacteria” in the base's septic system.
The only warning he could remember was not to dispose of the product beside buildings. So when he and his colleagues had filled a drum with used cleaner, they carried it across the parking lot and dumped it in the woods.
“Over the two years, how much did I dispose of?” he asked. “Christ. We used to go through 55 gallons in less than a month. So, you know, if I had to say a rough guess would be 100 gallons a month. … It was probably more. That's a conservative figure.”
A civilian worker from Lejeune told a federal fact-finding group that there was “no guideline, policy, or program in place for base personnel handling or disposing of any chemical until the mid-1980s.Until that time, said the worker, whose name was redacted from the group's report, PCB-laden transformer oil was spread onto roads “to keep the dust down,” and everything else “was either dumped on the ground or they just dug a hole and poured the chemicals into the ground.”
At one point, Poirier recalled, the EPA issued some guidance on TCE.
“And I remember the old-timers there saying, `That's a bunch of bull. … We've been doing it this way for years,“’ he said. “I was 18 years old. You did what you were told. You didn't ask questions.”
Victims of the contamination note that there was a 1974 order governing the disposal of organic solvents and cleaning chemicals on the base.
Poirier left the Marines in 1976 as a sergeant, then spent six years with the Army.
Over the years, Poirier was surprised at the number of former Marine comrades who had died of cancer. With all the chemicals he'd handled during his lifetime, he said, “I thought maybe I was the lucky one.”
Then his luck ran out.
By the time doctors discovered the tumor in his throat, the cancer had already spread to other parts of his body. Poirier's only option was chemotherapy.
At first, Poirier's doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital were baffled by his illness. He never smoked or drank to excess, and had quit both years earlier.
Then he learned about the Lejeune investigation, “and things started to make sense there.”
Esophageal cancer is one of 15 diseases or conditions listed under the Camp Lejeune Veterans and Family Act, which covers Marines and family members who were at the base between 1957 and 1987. Poirier's disability claim “breezed right through,” and he had nothing but praise for the care he received through the VA.
Following a recent NBC News report on Lejeune men diagnosed with breast cancer, Poirier poured his heart out on an online message board.
“It is very difficult living with the tought that i took part in this ground polution and facing death from this cancer,” he wrote, his fingers stumbling over the keys. “I joined the USMC to serve and protect, not to harm.”
Mike Partain, one of the men who appeared in the NBC piece, tried to reassure Poirier that he bore no blame.
“How can you be responsible in ignorance?” replied Partain, a Marine's son who was born at Lejeune's Naval Hospital. “You were poisoned just as much as I and everyone else at the base was.”
Poirier understood that – on one level.
“I'm a religious person,” he told the AP, apologizing repeatedly for his slurred speech. “I believe in the universe. I don't think it's a direct thing. But I have guilt, let's put it that way. I have guilt.”
A couple of years ago, the lifelong fisherman founded RonZ Engineered Soft Baits. He had recently switched from lead weights to tin, “a green metal,” and scrupulously avoided using plastics made with phthalates, a softening agent linked to cancer and reproductive issues.
Earlier this year, Poirier began having trouble walking. In mid-March, he learned the cancer had spread to his brain.
Within a week of speaking with the AP, Poirier had moved into hospice. He was later transferred to a skilled nursing facility, where he spent his final three weeks.
While he knew he couldn't alter the past, Poirier had hopes that he could change the future.
“When judgment day comes, you know,” he said, “I hope those people that suffered … realize that I didn't know what I was doing.”
Associated Press writer Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this story.
Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at features(at)ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/(hash)!/AllenGBreed