Camp Lejeune Lawsuit: The Grueling Quest for Justice

When the US Navy acquired the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base of North Carolina in 1941, military servicemen were pumped to have 156,000-acre land for humanitarian missions and training operations. Little did they know that only a decade later, the Camp’s water supplies (three wells in particular) would suffer intense contamination – an environmental and health disaster in the making.

One million Marines and their families were exposed to waters a hundred times the safe consumption limit from 1953 to 1987. Complete scrutiny of the groundwater wells in 1982 revealed that an off site dry-cleaning facility’s by-products had leaked dangerously high levels of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) into the system.

It’s been four decades since the discovery, and the US District Court in Eastern North Carolina is receiving thousands of lawsuits from affected veterans and their surviving families. Injuries range from wrongful deaths to life-threatening illnesses like cancers of the esophagus, breast, bladder, kidney, cervix, blood, and liver, Parkinson’s disease, and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, among others.

But what took the Federal government so long to deliver justice to its troops, and when can we expect the waiting game to be over? This article delves deeper into Camp Lejeune victims’ grueling quest for justice.


Uncovering the Matter Late in the Day

The water contamination issue, albeit gradually, started taking place in the early 1950s but no major concerns were raised till the 1980s. Veterans and their families continued to consume toxic water for nearly three decades; why this long?

Some people wonder whether the Camp’s residents felt any change in the water’s color and quality. The short answer is some may have, but they wouldn’t have suspected such a serious issue. One major reason for this is the nature of the Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) or chemicals that contaminated the groundwater wells at Hadnot Point, Tarawa Terrace, and Holcomb Boulevard.

VOCs like trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE) easily vaporize in the air and dissolve in water without imparting any distinct color. Not only that, but the chemicals have no specific (or distinguishable) flavor or odor in water. Isolated, they have a mildly sweet odor and a tongue-burning taste, but water as a solvent neutralizes these properties. Veterans and their families would have hardly noticed any change in their water, in terms of appearance, taste, odor, or quality.

It was only when numerous cases of health injuries began surfacing that speculations regarding the water supply were made.


EPA’s Contamination Cleanup Efforts: Government’s Idea of a Fair Shake

As the water contamination and its massive scale were discovered, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed Camp Lejeune on its National Priorities List (NPL) as a Superfund site in 1989. This meant that the government (under Pentagon and EPA) would carry out rigorous efforts to clean up Camp Lejeune of hazardous waste contamination, as financed under the Federal Superfund program.

The Camp Lejeune site had to be abandoned until cleanup efforts because VOCs easily seep into the soil, gradually making their way into commercial and residential buildings through pipes, cracks, pump openings, etc., causing indoor air pollution. Moreover, the soil becomes non-irrigable, and plants wilt and die when VOC levels exceed 0.4mM.

The cleanup efforts that continued into the succeeding two decades could scarcely be called heroic on the government’s part, given the fact that Camp Lejeune victims were still striving for justice in vain. It only gave the impression that the Federal government was merely eager to restart Camp operations without the taint of its tragic past.


The Federal Government’s Attempts to Bury the Matter

One would expect that the US Navy sprang into action the moment they discovered the public health crisis looming over the Camp. Nothing could be further from the truth. While the contamination issue was discovered in 1982, the responsible wells were not closed till 1985 (all because the Navy and the EPA did not grasp the gravity of the situation).

However, the following years’ attempts to turn deaf ears disclosed something far more mischievous at play. The US Navy claimed for two decades that no clear regulations were available for the chemicals contaminating the Camp (only partially true). Indeed, the EPA did not regulate PCE at the time, but a 1974 report stated that the Department of Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery had warned against organic solvents (which could become a health hazard at the Base).

The Navy never disclosed that report at the time of the Camp’s investigation. In fact, investigation efforts in earnest only began in October 1980. At the time, “heavy organic interference” was found in Camp Lejeune’s Hadnot Point system, and three subsequent reports admitted the presence of high levels of contamination. Another shocking news was that the heavy contamination belonged to two of the largest residential areas across the Base. This meant thousands of Marines and their families’ health was at risk. Until the issue was taken seriously, four years had lapsed – this was alarming considering that just a 30-day exposure to the Camp’s toxic water was enough to cause life-threatening conditions.

1.      Injuries Not Clearly Defined

In the meanwhile, the Camp Lejeune Base witnessed an unchecked rise in health injury cases. People even tried appealing to the Federal government for compensation, but their appeals were dismissed on grounds of unclear injuries.

At the time, there was no definite list of injuries associated with the Camp’s toxic waters. This gave the government a solid excuse to question the veracity of the damages endured. It was only in the following years that epidemiological studies linking the VOCs to health conditions were conducted.


2.      Application of the Feres Doctrine

Another roadblock in veterans’ fight for justice included an exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) of 1946. The Bill itself was passed to ensure US citizens that the Federal government would give up its sovereign immunity under certain conditions. However, the Feres doctrine exception stated that active-duty military members or their families cannot sue the Federal government under any circumstances.

Despite appealing that the military servicemen at the Camp were not exactly on active duty (performing acts incident to their service) at the time the damages occurred, the Supreme Court applied the Feres doctrine. One such case was the Carol Clendening vs. United States in which a widow called Carol Clendening lost an appeal before the Court due to the Feres exception.

Carol wanted to sue the Federal government on behalf of her husband, Gary, who had died from adult leukemia as a result of the Camp waters. Her case was dismissed without “warranting a further review” even though the government admitted that the late Gary’s leukemia was a direct consequence of Camp Lejeune water contamination.


Health Care and Justice Bills in the Decades That Followed

In 2012, nearly three decades after the water contamination discovery, President Barack Obama passed the Camp Lejeune Families Act. This Bill allowed affected veterans and their families to seek cost-free healthcare for their toxic water injuries. Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine Sergeant, played a pivotal role in securing justice for Camp Lejeune victims.

He had lost his nine-year-old daughter in 1985 due to leukemia caused by the Camp’s waters. The veteran recalled that he did not cry even once during his daughter’s treatments, but the tears were uncontrollable at her death. The Janey Ensminger Act of 2019 was passed to protect veterans’ rights to file claims against the Federal government.

The Biden administration completely flipped the tables with the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of August 2022. The Bill made the Federal government liable for veteran and civilian damages associated with Camp Lejeune. Plaintiffs have a filing window till August 2024 (two years from the date of the Bill enactment) to sue the government and seek compensation. So, what is the Camp Lejeune lawsuit update?

According to TorHoerman Law, thousands of Camp Lejeune administrative claims are already pending review with the US Navy JAG. The Federal Tort Claims Act does not make provisions for a direct lawsuit against the Federal government. Plaintiffs must first file administrative claims with the relevant Federal agency, and if the matter remains unresolved for six months, they can proceed to file a lawsuit.

What is concerning is the Navy’s unprecedented delays in reviewing and resolving claims. It is estimated that as many as 500,000 claims could be filed by August 2024 (making Camp Lejeune US’ largest mass tort). At this rate, how can veterans on their last legs hope to receive justice? The Department of Justice (DOJ) has requested the Navy JAG to accelerate the process, but funding and staffing shortages are said to have caused the said delays.

Speculations continue that this could be the government’s final attempt to waive responsibility and cross the statute of limitations. After all, the claims could range between $25,000 and $1 million, depending upon the context of each case.


To Be Continued

Jerry Ensminger and others in the Camp have not only served their country faithfully for decades but have also waited for over 25 years for justice. The struggle, to this point, has been long and arduous, especially since they stand against the Federal government itself.

Even now, the troops can hardly get any respite because the future is uncertain. Attorneys are trying their best to maximize recovery for plaintiffs and gather fair Camp Lejeune lawsuit settlements and amounts. However, the Navy JAG’s delays are causing concerns. Veterans on borrowed time cannot help but express their frustration, especially since many have suffered damages like lost wages and psychological trauma from the event.

Will the grueling quest for justice meet its expected end? It appears that we may have to wait till August 2024 to see the outcomes (or at least until the Navy begins resolving claims and the promised litigation portal is up and running for the plaintiffs).