Lawsuits over tainted Camp Lejeune water multiply

Published: Dec. 2, 2022 at 8:46 AM MST
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(CNN) - Lawsuits are building around one of the biggest ecological disasters in recent memory for the U.S. military: The poisoning of the water at Camp Lejeune that took place over decades.

It’s so severe, the Marine Corps base in North Carolina was once named a Superfund site and, in more recent years, has attracted the attention of environmental activist Erin Brockovich.

You’ve probably seen the commercials, lawyers lining up to help veterans in return for a slice of a potentially huge money pie.

The water at the vast Marine base in North Carolina was contaminated over 30-plus years, from 1953 to 1987, by an off-base dry cleaners, leaky storage tanks and chemical dumping.

“Over a million people were likely exposed to this toxic water during that time period. And what does that mean in terms of damages? I mean, it’s off the charts,” said Andrew Van Arsdale of AVA Law Group.

Ann Johnson lived at Camp Lejeune for many years. She ended up giving birth to a newborn who...
Ann Johnson lived at Camp Lejeune for many years. She ended up giving birth to a newborn who lived just seven weeks.(Source: CNN)

Greg Sexton’s mom saw one of the commercials, their first inkling that Camp Lejeune’s water might be to blame for what happened to him.

“So, I spent the summer there in 1977. I was 8 years old. I was spending time with my father who was in the Marines. He was a sergeant in the Marines. When I was 17, I was diagnosed with what’s called a Wilms Tumor,” Sexton said.

He had kidney cancer, one of the diseases now potentially linked to those chemicals in the water on the base.

The base also is where Ann Johnson lived with her Marine sergeant dad, where she met her future husband in high school and where she gave birth in 1984.

They didn’t bring Johnson’s daughter to her immediately. “I guess they were trying to prepare me for what she looked like,” she said.

Baby Jacquetta lived just seven weeks. At age 18, Johnson was forced into a horrific decision, to let her daughter go.

“I looked at my husband, and he just dropped his head not knowing what to say. And so, I looked up at the doctor, and I said, ‘Just, just let her go,’” she said.

Birth defects are also now potentially linked to those chemicals in the water on the base.

In 1980, tests found “water is highly contaminated,” and in 1981, “water highly contaminated with other chlorinated hydrocarbons ... solvents.”

The most contaminated wells weren’t closed for four years, after further testing.

In February 1985, PCE – a dry cleaning solvent – was measured at 43 times the current Environmental Protection Agency limit for drinking water in Tarawa Terrace, which houses enlisted men and their families.

Two months later, the base commander sent them all a letter: “Two of the wells that supply Tarawa Terrace have had to be taken offline because minute trace amounts of several organic chemicals have been detected in the water.”

There was no health warning, just a request to “reduce domestic water use” because supply was now limited.

Apparently, a mass health warning didn’t come until much later – 14 years later.

“Certain areas, water (was) super-contaminated. Other areas, it wasn’t. The Marine Corps barracks, right? The bachelor barracks, that was in the areas where the water was tainted,” Van Arsdale said.

Large sections of the base, used by officers and enlisted alike, were affected.

Van Arsdale asked his 6,000 or so clients: What rank were you when you were exposed to the water at Camp Lejeune?

Of the respondents, 96.3% said they were enlisted, while 3.7% were officers. There were always more enlisted men than officers on base.

An act of Congress, passed in August, allows Marines and their kin to file civil claims.

“Some simple acknowledgment would be my wish for everything moving forward,” Sexton said.

The Navy has six months to process their claims.

“They’ve received almost 5,000 claims as of today. They have not yet done anything about any of them,” Van Arsdale said.

Arsdale said he doesn’t think any of the claims that he filed so far will actually be processed within the six-month window. If not, claims could end up in a courthouse in the Eastern District of North Carolina.

Van Arsdale acknowledged that litigation could take years to even get inside the courthouse.

“It really could. I think that they are too worried about how to defend themselves than focused on what they should be doing, and that’s to make these lives better of the men and women who are suffering today,” he said.

“Rather than it being me, that it could have been the water that I consumed, and the government could be responsible for what I went through,” Johnson said.“My ex-husband went on to remarry and have a couple of more children. And there was nothing wrong with them. Jacquetta had to be me because these other kids were fine. So, it had to be me.”

The Navy unit handling claims said the initial step includes in-processing and initial evaluation. Currently, the Navy is primarily focused on this step.

At this stage, no claims are fully adjudicated. They say they are committed to resolving all claims related to this matter in a “fair, thorough and timely manner.”