Camp Lejeune toxic water victims eye justice as pivotal House bill passes

Cars enter the main gate at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C.
Cars enter the main gate at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C.

A bill that could allow military families to seek justice for decades of water contamination at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina passed with bipartisan support as part of a broad piece of toxics legislation in the House on Thursday morning.

If the legislation goes on to receive Senate approval and become law, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 would enable individuals who suffered from on-base water contamination to pursue lawsuits for their illnesses. The bill advanced within the Honoring our PACT Act of 2021 - an expansive act to improve benefits for veterans exposed to toxins - in a 256-174 vote, with 222 Democrats and 34 Republicans in favor.

The Camp Lejeune Justice Act would allow those exposed - even in-utero - to water contamination at the base for at least 30 days between Aug. 1, 1953, and Dec. 31, 1987, to file a claim in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Northern Carolina. To do so, the bill would essentially override a North Carolina legal hurdle that has otherwise made such suits impossible.

"Anybody who served in the United States Marine Corps, and went for combat training, probably went to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina," Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), the Camp Lejeune bill's sponsor, told The Hill on Wednesday. "So this is not just a North Carolina issue; it's a national issue."

"Thirty-four years of people were exposed to toxins in the drinking water at Camp Lejeune," Cartwright added.

Exposures to contaminants - such as trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), vinyl chloride and others - at Camp Lejeune likely increased the risk of certain cancers, adverse birth outcomes and other health impacts from the 1950s through February 1985, according to the Centers for Disease Control's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

The Marine Corps first discovered specific volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the drinking water generated by treatment plants on base in 1982, according to the ATSDR. Three of the plants had "historically supplied finished water to the majority of family housing units" and were found to contain VOCs, research from ATSDR stated.

The ATSDR links kidney cancer, multiple myeloma and various leukemias to water contamination at Camp Lejeune.

Retired U.S. Marines Corps Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger attributes his daughter's leukemia to the time she spent in-utero at Camp Lejeune. Janey Ensminger died of the cancer at age nine in 1985.

"The entire first trimester of Janey's pregnancy was there on the base," Jerry Ensminger, told The Hill on the eve of the bill's passage.

"We've got more documented evidence of what happened at Camp Lejeune than they have for Agent Orange," Ensminger, who served for nearly 25 years in the Marines, added.

While public health officials have long recognized the health impacts of water contamination from the base, seeking legal recourse has never been an option for victims, due to a strict North Carolina rule called a "statute of repose." This rule bars claims once a specific amount of time passes following a defendant's actions, according to the Wex Law dictionary.

Statutes of repose are different from statutes of limitations, which bar claims after a certain amount of time passes following an injury. Instead, statutes of repose begin running on the date of the defendant's action - even if an injury has not yet occurred.

North Carolina is among the few states to have a statute of repose on polluters that prohibits plaintiffs from launching cases if more than 10 years have passed since the contaminating event.

"It is an anomaly that is blocking every single one of these claims for the exposure to Camp Lejeune toxic water for those 34 years," Cartwright said.

What the Camp Lejeune Justice Act intends to do is waive "the defense of the North Carolina statute of repose for the Camp Lejeune claims," Cartwright explained.

According to the text of the bill, plaintiffs would need to prove a relationship between the water at Camp Lejeune and harm caused to them in order to sue the government for harm under the Federal Tort Claims Act. They would also need to file a claim within two years of the bill's enactment.

Meanwhile, any amount awarded to a plaintiff would be offset by disability payments the individual is receiving through the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Medicare or Medicaid, according to the bill.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides health care and compensation to veterans who served at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 cumulative days from August 1953 through December 1987 and have had one of several specific cancers and diseases, according to the VA.

Family members who lived on the base for at least 30 cumulative days during that period and have had one of 15 specific conditions can also receive health-related reimbursements, but not compensation, per the VA.

The Veteran Affairs provisions are the result of the 2011 Janey Ensminger Act, which resulted from her father's belief that contaminated water at Camp Lejeune caused her illness and ultimate death.

"None of us are asking Congress to give us a handout," Jerry Ensminger said. "We served, and our families were there supporting us while we served, to protect people's rights, constitutional rights. And yet they're going to strip us of ours. No, I just want my right to have my case heard in a court of law."

"They killed my daughter," Ensminger added. "I'm convinced they did."

While a companion bill to the Camp Lejeune Justice Act has yet to reach the Senate, sources familiar with the matter said that Sen. Thom Tillis's (R-N.C.) office is working on several strategies to get the legislation approved.

Even if these provisions become law, plaintiffs who file suit still must undergo due process. Asked how he thought they might fare in court, Cartwright said that "it's going to vary on a case-by-case basis," and, like Ensminger, he stressed that "this is not a handout."

"This is just to give people a chance at their day in court," Cartwright said.

"It's hard to put into words the importance of sticking up for the people who were willing to die for our freedoms, when something bad happens to them and they can't get justice for it," he added.

Cartwright expressed hope that plaintiffs wouldn't have to suffer through trials, surmising that the government might opt for a collective resolution over shouldering the formidable costs of so many court cases.

"If we do get our day in court, I think that there's going to be some scurrying going on in the Department of the Navy and in the Department of Defense," Jerry Ensminger agreed.

"They're going to try to run to Congress to get some kind of Band-Aid thing to get them out of the hot seat," he added. "If every one of these cases goes to court and gets awarded, you'd bust the Treasury."

Environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who has long supported Jerry Ensminger's efforts to achieve justice for those sickened at Camp Lejeune, applauded the bill's advancement.

"This is Jerry's story, these are the stories of the men and women and their children of Camp Lejeune," Brockovich told The Hill. "I am so thrilled that after all this time, the leaders in government are standing up and doing the right thing by these brave and honorable people."

Ensminger, meanwhile, described the bill's passage as a "first step." He and his fellow Marines, he said, served to defend the rights of Americans "to have their grievances heard in front of a court of law."

"That was one of the rights that we were there serving to protect while we were being poisoned by our own leaders," he said.