Climate Change Litigation

VA Repeatedly Denies Claims for Camp Lejeune Toxic Exposure: Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2021 Might Help

For close to a century, the US army’s practice of storing toxic substances on or nearby its active bases across the country has exposed millions of troops stationed with their families to severe health hazards with lasting consequences. North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune is arguably the most infamous instance of widespread toxic contamination on US military installations, affecting soldiers and their loved ones located on the site for more than three decades until the issue was addressed. 

Despite the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) acknowledging the base’s contamination and providing benefits to affected individuals that qualify under their guidelines, many veterans and their immediate family had their claims repeatedly rejected by the Department’s experts tasked with evaluating eligibility. Moreover, Camp Lejeune’s issues with toxic contamination also have the potential to be exacerbated by the accumulating effects of climate change. 

Camp Lejeune’s History of Contamination

Between 1953 – 1987, up to one million troops and their families were stationed on Camp Lejeune’s grounds, being unintentionally exposed to severe health hazards in the form of volatile organic compounds resulting from industrial waste, oil, degreasers, solvents, and even radioactive chemicals. Several studies found upwards of 70 toxic contaminants across the base, exceeding acceptable safety limits by 240 – 3,400 times. 

Among the most harmful substances that have been identified at Camp Lejeune are benzene, vinyl chloride, halogenated hydrocarbons, trihalomethanes, perchloroethylene (PCE), trichloroethylene (TCE), and per/polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) known as “forever chemicals.” Prolonged exposure to these toxins has been clinically associated with debilitating and life-threatening conditions, including several types of cancers, neurobehavioral effects, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, congenital defects, infertility, and miscarriage. 

Due to the extensive contamination of its grounds, Camp Lejeune was designated as a Superfund site by the EPA in 1989. 

VA Experts Reject Camp Lejeune Veterans’ Claims

The US Congress passed legislation in 2012 that would provide affected Camp Lejeune veterans and their families with improved healthcare and medical benefits through the VA. Accordingly, the Department established guidelines outlining eligibility and employed subject matter experts to review claims and ensure they’re service related. 

An investigation into the VA’s records regarding the Department’s subject matter experts uncovered issues pertaining to their credentials. Notably, some of the claimed “experts” were doctors skilled in preventive and general medicine who lacked the adequate experience to evaluate the conditions that Camp Lejeune victims were facing. From 2013 to 2016, a mere 1% – 4.5% of Camp Lejeune toxic exposure claims were approved for benefits nationally.

By 2017, Congress and the VA designated eight illnesses as presumptive Camp Lejeune conditions that would qualify those impacted on a presumption of exposure. Although claim approvals increased following this measure, afflicted veterans consider that the list should be expanded to include a broader range of conditions associated with the base’s extensive contamination.

Climate Change Looms Over Camp Lejeune 

Despite its status as a Superfund site, Camp Lejeune remains a significant military installation on the US east coast, housing and employing approximately 170,000 individuals. The base also serves as a training ground for amphibious (sea-to-land) assault operations due to its proximity to the Atlantic coast. 

Similar to how the army wasn’t aware of the risks that storing hazardous substances would represent in the future, it also couldn’t foresee the impact that climate change would have on Camp Lejeune when it was built in the 40s and 50s. 

Over the past decades, tropical storms affecting the US east coast have grown in frequency and intensity, impacting vulnerable areas that lack adequate safety precautions. In 2018, Camp Lejeune was battered for three days by Hurricane Florence, which damaged 70% of its buildings, with repairs estimated at $3.6 billion. Aside from the environmental impact that erosion causes due to rising sea levels, which also has the potential to affect the base’s vital amphibious assault training capabilities, the threat of toxic runoff from Camp Lejeune’s contaminated grounds remains a looming issue. In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence’s devastation, 84,000 gallons of sewage spilled from Camp Lejeune, potentially exposing surrounding communities and emergency workers to a dangerous cocktail of toxins. 

Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022 Expands Veterans’ Opportunities

In 2016, Camp Lejeune victims’ multi-districting litigation lawsuit was dismissed due to North Carolina’s statute of repose. After exhausting all available appeal methods by 2018, thousands of vulnerable veterans and affected kin were left without the possibility of legal recourse. 

After President Biden took office, Matthew Cartwright introduced the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2021 for the House’s consideration. Despite having its progress initially stunted, the bill was redrafted in 2022 and resubmitted with solid bipartisan support. 

Later in the year, the bill merged with the comprehensive Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022, which aims to provide US veterans impacted by service-related toxic exposure with substantial benefits and compensation. The bill expectedly passed the Congress vote and was signed into law in early August 2022 by President Biden, who believes that his son’s death in 2015 resulted from service-related toxic exposure.

Camp Lejeune victims can now submit federal lawsuits in North Carolina’s East District thanks to the bill’s provisions effectively bypassing the state’s problematic statute of repose. Affected veterans and their relatives are provided a 2-year period to submit their claims, either since the bill was passed or since they were diagnosed with a Camp Lejeune-related illness. Furthermore, the list of presumptive conditions was expanded to include 23 new diseases, and plaintiffs face a lower burden of proof, as they can cite a valid study or research that confirms the association between their condition and Camp Lejeune’s contamination as satisfactory evidence.

Although sadly, not all of those affected by Camp Lejeune’s contamination got to witness the progress that has been achieved, surviving veterans and their families now can access the much need benefits that their enduring struggles entitle them to. Moving forward, the US Army’s continuous clean-up and environmentally-aware rebuilding of Camp Lejeune’s facilities should ensure that future marines will not face the same toxic exposure and climate change-related risks that affected previous generations.

About the Author

Jonathan Sharp serves as the Chief Financial Officer of the Birmingham, Alabama-based Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., a law firm specializing in toxic exposure cases that assists veterans and their families adversely affected by hazardous substances on military bases.

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