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Still Waiting for Justice
In 1982, the government found that chemicals from a nearby drycleaner and leaking fuel storage tanks had found their way into the drinking water supply of the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base in southeastern North Carolina. Some of the volatile organic compounds found in the water were up to 400 times the maximum safety limit.
It wasn’t until 1999 — 17 years later — that the Marine Corps began to inform people who had lived on the base that they may have been exposed to toxic chemicals known to cause several forms of cancer, birth defects, and other serious health conditions.
This year marks 70 years since the contamination first began. Even after all this time, victims of the exposure are suffering the long-term effects, grieving the loss of loved ones, and still seeking justice. But a new law that promised to deliver that justice seems to be tacking on even more delays.
In this edition:
- The devastation of “friendly water”
- Few avenues for help
- Roadblocks and red tape
- What the government owes Camp Lejeune victims
In August 2022, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act was signed into law, giving victims of the exposure the opportunity to seek financial compensation from the government for cancers and other health problems. But, as my colleague POGO Senior Researcher Neil Gordon notes in a new analysis, the latest avenue for legal recourse has created more challenges for the victims. I chatted with Neil to understand what was happening.
Camp Lejeune is believed to be one of the worst water contamination cases in our country’s history. The contamination began in 1953, and it wasn’t until 1987 that the water was considered safe again. In the more than three decades in between, nearly 1 million people — service members, their spouses and children, and civilians — were potentially exposed to toxic chemicals in the water they drank, bathed in, and cooked with.
The effects of the exposure were devastating. The chemicals in the water have been linked to 15 types of cancers and conditions, including a higher risk of Parkinson’s disease. An NBC News report details an epidemic of miscarriages, stillbirths, and birth defects that affected Camp Lejeune families as early as the 1960s. A Marine veteran who lived at Lejeune from 1975 to 1977 and who now suffers from Parkinson’s likened the contamination to friendly fire, calling it “friendly water.”
For years, victims and their families have searched for answers and justice for the harm they experienced. That justice has long been delayed and denied. ”There was a seeming reluctance by the government to accept responsibility,” Neil told me. “No official mea culpa.”
It is only very recently that the government has responded to the efforts of Camp Lejeune victims. In 2012, the Obama administration passed the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act, which allowed former service members to receive health care for qualifying conditions through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). But loopholes left out many affected people and conditions, even after the act was strengthened in 2017. Red tape in the process caused seemingly eligible veterans’ claims to be denied. Last year, the VA’s inspector general found that nearly 40% of disability claims made under the act since 2017 had been grossly mishandled.
With the passage of last year’s Camp Lejeune Justice Act came a new avenue for legal recourse. Prior to the act, a 10-year filing deadline in North Carolina was blocking Camp Lejeune victims from filing suits to seek damages from the government. But the new act provides a way around that, giving victims until August 2024 to file claims with the Navy (or the North Carolina federal district court if the Navy denies their claim or fails to resolve it within six months).
At this point, we’re more than halfway to the August 2024 filing deadline. But as Neil notes in his piece, there’s little to show for what the act was intended to accomplish.
As of September, over 93,000 claims are pending review with the Navy. Many of these could end up joining the more than 1,100 cases that are already on the docket of the North Carolina federal court. So far, only a handful of claims — three, to be exact — are known to have been settled. Both the Navy and the federal court have noted they are under-resourced and overwhelmed by the claims.
But the challenges of this new law go beyond delays in justice. Lawyers and law firms have been extremely aggressive in their outreach to Camp Lejeune victims. It’s been estimated that law firms have spent more than $220 million on targeted Camp Lejeune advertisements. Several law firms have even been sued for violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act because of their alleged use of abusive telemarketing tactics.
That may be because there are no caps on how big a share a lawyer can take from a claim settlement. This has reportedly led some to demand a whopping 40% to 50%, in addition to fees and expenses. “Usually, settlement programs like these have a cap of 25%. So the Camp Lejeune case is an anomaly,” Neil told me. He also notes in his piece that there was a 25% fee cap in an early version of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, but the provision was later removed. The removal was pushed by a prominent law firm that also spent $1.9 million lobbying for the act to be passed in the first place.
What is owed and overdue
Seventy years after chemicals started leaking into the water at Camp Lejeune, victims are still facing an uphill battle to get the justice they deserve. So much time has passed that generations of victims have passed away. Families are faced with crushing medical bills. The government needs to do right by the victims by addressing the hurdles that are delaying and complicating justice.
Recently, there have been some attempts to remedy the system in the form of updated guidance on lawyer fees and the creation of a more streamlined claims process — but both changes have the potential to fall short.
As Neil says in his piece, Camp Lejeune victims are owed “efficient, expeditious, and fair” compensation for what they endured.
Camp Lejeune Toxic Water Victims Still Wait for Justice The Department of In-Justice? Toxic Secrecy: The Marine Corps' Cover-up of Water Contamination at Camp Lejeune