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Project on Government Oversight

Supreme Court Supports Toxic Polluters, Imperils Camp Lejeune Vets’ Litigation

The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled against some Asheville, N.C., homeowners who unknowingly bought land contaminated by toxic chemicals and are now trying to sue the company that dumped them there. 

The court decided that a North Carolina law with a 10-year “statute of repose” can bar victims of toxic pollution from suing their polluters, even if they did not become aware of surreptitious dumping until much later.  The ruling carries sweeping implications for countless Americans threatened by toxic dumping, among them, thousands of Marines and their families sickened by water contamination at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C.  The legal claims of some Camp Lejeune families could be undermined by the decision.

"I am outraged by today’s Supreme Court decision which once again demonstrates the power of corporations over the rights of individual in this country," said consumer advocate Erin Brockovich. "It’s a sad day when victims are denied the most basic right to their day in court. Worst of all, this ruling is a cruel slap in the face to military families from Camp Lejuene who have suffered as a result of contaminated drinking water. On the heels of the recent Veterans Affairs abuse revelations this is further evidence that the federal government isn’t interested in supporting the troops."

“I am stunned by today’s decision. It’s a blow to all victims exposed to and suffering from the health effects of toxic pollution," said retired Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, who uncovered the contamination at Camp Lejeune after losing his 9-year old daughter Janey to leukemia. "Science shows that the latency period of cancer after toxic chemical exposure is 20 or 30 years. This ruling means victims will not be able to sue a company for its wrongful pollution once the statute of repose has passed.  And the reality is, the statute of repose may pass before their cancer or other environmental disease manifests. I have been fighting for the rights of veterans to see justice from the toxic pollution of Camp Lejeune for more than 20 years and this ruling is a tragedy for all of us. Words cannot describe my disappointment in the Obama administration for siding with the polluters in this case and the ultimate decision that has resulted in a harmful precedent for polluted communities across the country.”

“This Supreme Court ruling is a real boon for polluters, who will now be expressly rewarded for covering up contamination of a community’s water, land and air -- and ultimately, people's bodies,” said Heather White, executive director of the Environmental Working Group. 

“We are incredibly disappointed in the position taken by the Obama administration, which sided with the polluter in this case by arguing for limiting the reach of federal environmental law,” White said. “It’s a travesty that the administration would do so in an effort to avoid answering to the victims of industrial pollution at Camp Lejeune, people who for years were unknowingly exposed to dangerous chemicals in the water of the military base. This ruling adds more than another insult to injury to these veterans; it may ultimately rob them of the justice they deserve.”

“Essentially, the court is saying that if polluters can keep their acts secret until the deadline set by the statute of repose expires, Americans have no right to sue,” White said.  “This decision will give polluters a powerful financial incentive to conceal what they have done.  It could unleash a deluge of industry-backed lobbying efforts in state after state, seeking to enact laws similar to the North Carolina statute and further undermining Americans’ right to protection from special interests.”

"Today the U.S. Supreme Court has effectively turned back the environmental clock back to the 19th Century and the days of robber barons and the 'Wild West'," said Mike Partain, a male breast cancer victim and former resident of Camp Lejeune. "Now corporate America and our own government have been enabled by our highest court to completely disregard the public health for benefit of the “almighty dollar”.

Veterans and their families have charged that pollution at Camp Lejeune is linked to at least 84 cases of male breast cancer and thousands more rare cancers, leukemia, birth defects and other serious illnesses.

“We are deeply disappointed in today’s wrongheaded decision,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a non-profit watchdog group and one of EWG’s partners in the fight for environmental health legislation.  “We fear that this may set the precedent that the Obama administration sought—denying justice to those harmed by toxic pollution at Camp Lejeune and elsewhere. It is unconscionable that people may lose their right to seek justice before they even know they were harmed. Like Justice Ginsberg, we are concerned that this will encourage more secrecy and cover-ups like the one the government has engaged in over Camp Lejeune for decades. Ultimately, Congress may need to make clear its intent to protect the rights of victims of polluters no matter how long it takes for them to get cancer or die.”

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO’s investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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