Predecessors of these U.S. Marines from 1953 to 1987 were exposed to tap water containing harmful cancer-causing chemicals, including trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, benzene and vinyl chloride at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. File Photo by Alexis C. Glenn/UPI | License Photo
WASHINGTON, Aug. 18 (UPI) -- Sweeping legislation to help people exposed to toxic chemicals during military service, signed into law last week by President Joe Biden, extends well beyond burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan to the U.S. Marines' Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
The new law gives long-awaited legal recourse to potentially hundreds of thousands of ex-Marines, their families and civilian workers who drank contaminated water while at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987.
Many ended up with cancers and other devastating illnesses, had miscarriages or died because of their exposure to contaminants, with volatile organic compounds in the base's water system identified by the military as far back as 1980.
They are people like ex-Marine Gerard McNamara, 74, a retired plant manager for the Scranton, Pa., post office. He's the father of Gerry McNamara, a former basketball guard who now is an assistant coach at Syracuse University.
The elder McNamara told UPI in a phone interview that he spent a few months at Camp Lejeune in 1967 for advanced infantry training before being deployed to Vietnam, where he was wounded twice.
He said he was basically healthy until 2004, when cancer forced a kidney removal. Over the past five years, he has been diagnosed with brain cancer, esophageal cancer and bone cancer.
Then, there is Mike Partain, who was conceived and born at Camp Lejeune and lived on base in family housing for the first five months of his life.
Male breast cancers appear
He was stricken with male breast cancer at age 39 in 2007-- a condition he was told he had only a .005% chance of developing because he was young, had no genetic markers and led a healthy lifestyle.
Partain, now 54 and an insurance adjuster in Homosassa, Fla., said he knows of about 125 more men with male breast cancer who have one thing in common: Camp Lejeune.
Now, the legal landscape has improved for them and perhaps thousands of others.
That's because the bipartisan Camp Lejeune Justice Act was enacted into law as part of the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022.
The newly minted law gives military personnel and veterans, their family members and civilian workers up to two years from enactment to take legal action against the federal government.
They can file civil suits for fair compensation under the Federal Tort Claims Act for injuries and deaths resulting from the military's botched handling of Camp Lejeune's toxic water problem.
Previously, they had faced seemingly insurmountable legal hurdles.
In 2019, the U.S. Navy denied all 4,400 civil claims filed under the federal tort law for personal injuries or deaths related to the base's contamination, contending it had no legal authority to make payouts.
Similar lawsuits filed between 2012 and 2016 also were dismissed because of the Feres doctrine that barred service members from suing the government under the federal tort law for injuries sustained during military service.
Barriers to lawsuits
A North Carolina statute also had precluded people from suing more than 10 years after exposure to contaminants, although some illnesses arose decades after people drank the water.
Moreover, while veterans have been able to file for VA health benefits if they meet certain criteria, their spouses and dependents had been effectively barred from going to court under a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
"The law restores our rights to pursue the government for our damages," said Partain, whose attorney, Ed Bell, has filed a $25 million lawsuit on his behalf.
Most lawyers representing people who were impacted will get fees contingent on the size of jury awards, which the new law doesn't cap. Punitive damages aren't allowed.
Hours after the bill was signed, Bell told UPI in a phone interview he had met with almost 200 members of Congress over the past several years, "and no one, not a single one, had ever heard the real story about Camp Lejeune."
During the period identified by the federal government as problematic, the CDC says people at Camp Lejeune were exposed to tap water teeming with harmful chemicals, including trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, benzene and vinyl chloride.
The government cited waste disposal practices at an off-base dry cleaning firm as the source. These highly carcinogenic substances were found at levels high above the current U.S. maximum contaminant level allowed in drinking water.
In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency placed Camp Lejeune on the Superfund program's National Priorities List for contaminated soil, sediment, surface water and groundwater.
That same year, the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry began to investigate the base and later created a panel to assist the Camp Lejeune community.
The bottom line, Partain, McNamara and others said, is that Camp Lejeune's water contamination was discovered decades ago. But little was done to mitigate risks, and people were not informed of the danger.
Or, as Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., put it: "It was in the water, and they drank it in the mess halls. And their families bathed in it ... and they filled their canteens with it."
Cartwright, a lawyer, reintroduced the Camp Lejeune Justice Act in January as part of an effort he began in 2018.
"You know you put yourself in harm's way when you join the Marine Corps," Cartwright told UPI in a phone interview. "But being poisoned by the well water isn't part of the deal, and that's why these people ought to have their day in court."
To file suit, people must have lived on the base for at least 30 days between Aug. 1, 1953, through the end of 1987. They must sue in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, and prove their ill health is somehow tied to Camp Lejeune's contaminated water or that exposure to the water increased the likelihood of it.
Ability to seek compensation
Legal experts said the new law will allow people to seek compensation "for their injuries, medical costs, emotional harm and any other applicable damages," including wrongful death.
However, Cartwright said any net settlement must be offset by VA disability benefits and Medicare and Medicaid claims.
Partain said he and his friend, Jerry Ensminger, an ex-Marine whose 9-year-old daughter died of leukemia in 1985 while the family lived at Camp Lejeune, "have fought tooth and nail" on the issue for 15 and 25-plus years, respectively.
Under the Janey Ensminger Act of 2012, the VA provides limited medical care as a payor of last resort -- but no disability or death benefits -- for certain medical conditions arising from Camp LeJeune toxins. Also covered are family members who meet specific criteria.
In 2017, the Department of Veterans Affairs declared eight "presumptive conditions" linked by scientific evidence to contaminants at Camp Lejeune: adult leukemia; aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes; bladder cancer; kidney cancer; liver cancer; multiple myeloma; non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and Parkinson's disease.
Learned about contamination
McNamara heard about Camp Lejeune's water contaminants by chance when he followed his doctor who relocated to Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center. A paperwork clerk mentioned the toxins and suggested he contact his local VA representative.
McNamara did, and he's now on 100% disability benefits. He said he received the benefits as a kidney cancer survivor after the VA's rule took effect in 2017.
"But I'd had surgery 13 years before [in 2004]," McNamara noted, "and didn't get compensation. It wasn't retroactive."
Partain said the 2012 law was "a victory at the time" but didn't resolve the problem.
It "only pays for medical care as a last resort [after other insurers], and because my cancer was before the law was passed, I didn't get reimbursed for anything," he said.
Partain said his first marriage broke up, his four children were traumatized and the family faced economic strain because of his illness -- to the point at which they expected to lose their house.
"There's nothing that can replace what I lost," he said. "The end of the story shouldn't be about money, because that's not what it's about. It's about holding [the military] accountable."