More than 30 years after contaminated wells were shut down at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, victims continue to petition Congress for action.
With more than 50 backers in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2021 is the bill Camp Lejeune toxic water victims and survivors need passed.
“Inclusion of this bill in law would allow veterans and their families that have experienced harm due to the water quality issue at Lejeune the ability to seek justice in court,” said Rep. David Rouzer (R-NC) in a statement.
According to Rouzer, he and colleagues from North Carolina recently wrote the House Armed Services Committee requesting the act be included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2022.
If passed, victims and survivors could file a lawsuit under the Federal Tort Claims Act, an avenue of relief lacking due to an anomaly in North Carolina state law.
“For years the Department of Defense has refused to admit this is a problem,” Rouzer said. “Congress has been reticent to act, largely because the Department of Defense has historically not supported any action.”
In 2014, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling concluded that North Carolina’s 10-year statute of repose prevents victims of environmental harm from taking legal action more than 10 years after exposure. The Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2021, or H.R. 2192, was introduced by Representatives Matt Cartwright (D-PA), Greg Murphy (R-NC) and David Price (D-NC) in March to bypass that statute.
“The bipartisan Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2021 takes a critical step towards justice for the service members and their families who were exposed,” said Price in a statement. “For 30 years, thousands were exposed to water that likely increased their risk of developing cancers and adverse birth outcomes.”
The bill now sits with the House Committee on the Judiciary as the House Armed Services Committee works to finalize its NDAA, which will be publicly released before a markup session on September 1, according to committee communications director Monia Matoush.
Under current law, veterans who served at Camp Lejeune or Marine Corps Air Station New River for at least 30 days from August 1953 through 1987 are eligible for free VA care connected to any of 15 conditions plus disability benefits for eight presumptive conditions. Family members who resided on base and have one of the recognized conditions may receive reimbursements for out of pocket costs.
According to a 2020 Camp Lejeune Community Assistance Panel meeting, more than 70,000 veterans are enrolled in the benefits program, which was established in 2012.
More than 3,500 veterans have been treated for at least one of the eligible conditions – the most common being bladder cancer and kidney cancer – and more than 500 family members have been reimbursed for related costs, most commonly breast cancer treatment.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), who is expected to introduce a version of the bill to the Senate soon, said earlier this year he thinks the act will get passed this Congress, along with the Toxic Exposure in the American Military (TEAM) Act, a bill that would expand VA health care for veterans exposed to toxic substances and improve how veterans impacted by exposure are treated.
“Tillis has broad support for the TEAM Act, with 13 co-sponsors and 30+ Military and Veterans Service organizations supporting the legislation,” wrote Tillis’s press secretary Lauren Scott in an email. “The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and the House Veterans Affairs Committee are in the process of identifying the best path forward for a comprehensive toxic exposure legislative package.”
By Calvin Shomaker