Has the clock run out on Camp Lejeune claims?

Thomas Crisp Contributing Columnist

April 6, 2014

President Obama signed a law in 2012 offering health benefits to thousands of former Marines and their families who were exposed decades ago to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. But in a related case headed to the Supreme Court in April that could bolster or block their claims for damages, Obama’s Justice Department has argued that the clock has run out.

The case could have profound implications for victims of hidden contamination at Camp Lejeune and other former industrial sites in states that set deadlines on damage claims.

Those lawsuits generally involve “enormous financial stakes — typically in the millions of dollars,” according to a petition filed by the electronics manufacturer at the center of the case. It also puts the Obama administration in the awkward position of opposing environmental cleanup and help for veterans.

The focus of both the Supreme Court case involving property damage and health risks, and the more serious Camp Lejeune claims of deaths and serious illnesses from toxic water supplies, is a fundamental issue: How soon must victims cry foul?

North Carolina, home to both conflicts, has a 10-year “statute of repose” after which claims are deemed moot. Unlike a statute of limitations, which usually begins when an injury is recognized, the clock ticks from the date of the final contamination — even if residents remain unaware until decades later.

A provision in the federal Superfund law passed in 1980 was intended to help victims by giving them two years to file claims from the date they discover the cause of their injuries. Landowners who unknowingly bought contaminated property in Asheville, N.C. — the issue in the Supreme Court case — and veterans who lived and raised families at Camp Lejeune 400 miles away both discovered contamination decades later.

The Justice Department, which declined to comment on the case while it is pending, has contended that the state’s 10-year deadline precludes the lawsuits.

“The United States has a substantial interest in the proper resolution of this question,” the government said in its August 2012 federal appeals court brief in CTS Corp. v. Waldburger. It specifically noted that the Camp Lejeune claims rest on the same issue.

“The fact that some plaintiffs will be unaware of their claims until after the statute of repose expires is an inherent feature of statutes of repose,” the government argued.

Exposing polluters to greater liability could discourage voluntary disclosure and cleanup, it said, as well as pose a burden to industry.

The appeals court sided with the 23 landowners seeking damages and remediation because their land had been contaminated with toxic chemicals from 1959 to 1985, when CTS Corp. ran an electronics manufacturing plant in Asheville. It wasn’t until 2009 that landowners learned their water could cause liver and kidney damage, heart ailments and cancer.

“Our decision here will likely raise the ire of corporations and other entities that wish to rest in the security of statutes of repose, free from the threat of being called to account for their contaminating acts,” the panel said in a divided 2-1 ruling. Congress’ intent in passing Superfund legislation, it said, was that “victims of toxic waste not be hindered in their attempts to hold accountable those who have strewn such waste on their land.”

How the Supreme Court handles the Waldburger case will affect Camp Lejeune claimants, and potentially others who get caught in the no-man’s land between state legal deadlines and federal Superfund laws. One clock ticks forward from the polluter’s last act, the other from the victim’s discovery.

The last wells contaminated with industrial solvents such as trichloroethylene (TCE), benzene and other chemicals at the Marine Corps base came on line in 1985. Under North Carolina law, that means claims must have been filed by 1995. But no one knew of the danger until 1997.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder late last year, 23 environmental, health, veterans and related groups called the Justice Department’s argument in the Waldburger case “particularly troubling” because it linked the potential result to the Camp Lejeune claims.

If the government’s argument prevails, they wrote, “landowners in Asheville and thousands more who have been unwittingly harmed in similar cases of contamination would be denied the justice they deserve.” Mike Partain, who was born at the Marine base in 1968 and was diagnosed with male breast cancer seven years ago, puts it another way: “How many bullets do we have to take before we finally get our day in court?” [Source: USA TODAY | Richard Wolf | 1 Mar 2014]

Now Online

There are now web pages on the National Archives website designed for Veterans Service Officers. The pages are designed to assist military veterans, retirees, and their next of kin. NPRC suggests VSO’s read the general information section first.

While some of the information here may be obvious, this is to ensure that VSOs have the up-to-date and accurate information about NPRC and military records. The information topics requested can then be read. The goal was to have the information that VSO’s needed in one location.

The information is of a general nature because there are many different circumstances unique to each person’s request, such as branch of service and time of service. Information provided also includes the type of service and the rank. The record type needed is also listed.

The direct link for the VSO web page is The VSO web page may also be found by clicking on the VSO web page link in the lower right corner of the Veterans Records page on the site. NPRC sent notifications via email of the availability of the new links to approximately 1,400 VSOs.

For info NPRC has not yet figured out a way to create a VSO only phone line to NPRC that would not eventually be taken over by the general public (without creating individual accounts and issuing individual passwords).