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Holding the Government Accountable

DOJ Gets It Wrong on Camp Lejeune – Again

Last week, we wrote about the Department of Justice attempting to put up another roadblock for victims of the Camp Lejeune water contamination. This week, matters got worse.

As we explained in the earlier blog, the Supreme Court will soon consider a case about whether a North Carolina law can invalidate claims associated with hazardous waste made 10 or more years after the pollution last occurred. Although this case isn’t about the Camp Lejeune litigation, a finding that the North Carolina law does invalidate the claims would get in the way of justice for Marines, their families, and civilians who have suffered as a result of the water contamination that plagued the North Carolina base for more than 30 years. And that is just what DOJ is hoping to see.

Instead of staying silent on the issue or taking the right side in CTS Corporation v. Waldburger—the side of those affected by the contamination—the U.S. Solicitor General is supporting a known polluter’s attempts to get out of paying for damages.

In an amicus curiae, or “friend of the court” brief, submitted Monday to the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli spelled out that the government’s interest in the case was Camp Lejeune. The Solicitor General’s brief reads:

The United States has a particular interest in the interaction of CERCLA [Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act] with the North Carolina statute because of ongoing litigation against the United States under the FTCA [Federal Tort Claims Act] involving allegations of contaminated drinking water at the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base in North Carolina.

CERCLA, the law that assigns liability for hazardous waste clean-up, supersedes state statutes of limitations, giving victims more time to file claims. This is particularly important when dealing with hazardous waste, since many effects of pollutants are diseases, such as cancer, that may only become apparent years after exposure. However, the law is silent on statutes of repose—another type of limiting statute that was not considered separate from statutes of limitations when CERCLA was signed in 1980.

In April, the Supreme Court will consider whether or not statutes of repose are covered under the statutes of limitations umbrella in CERCLA. If CTS Corporation is successful in getting the Supreme Court to overturn the Fourth Circuit’s decision, victims of the Camp Lejeune contamination will lose their ability to file claims under CERCLA. Any claim made after 1995 would fall outside the 10-year statute of repose in North Carolina, rendering the claim moot. Most Camp Lejeune victims and families were not even aware of the pollution until Congress required notice in 2006. Prior to congressional involvement, the Navy and Marine Corps had spent years hiding the truth of the contamination.

POGO’s Angela Canterbury said, “It is ludicrous to presume that the victims of Camp Lejuene should have sought relief before they even knew they were victims. And it is absolutely shameful that DOJ is seeking to deny justice to the Marines, families, and civilians who were poisoned by the country they served.”

When signing the Janey Ensminger Act, a law strongly supported by POGO that provides extended health care to Camp Lejeune victims with illnesses related to the contamination, President Obama emphasized the nation’s responsibility to the troops, saying, “They protect our freedom, and it’s our obligation to do right by them.” The DOJ’s continued insistence on characterizing the water contamination at Camp Lejeune as “allegations” shows its disregard for the intentions of Congress and the commitment of the President himself.

“It is a slap in the face to all of the men and women who serve our nation to see the U.S. government continue to deny responsibility and evade accountability,” Canterbury said. “When will the government finally make things right for those who have suffered greatly at the hands of the Marine command at Camp Lejeune?”