Between 1953 and 1987, the environment of Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, was severely contaminated with trichloroethylene, vinyl chloride, perchloroethylene, benzene, and PFAS. During this period, approximately one million people lived at the military base. Toxic exposure was unavoidable. While the highest trichloroethylene level at Camp Lejeune was 280 times over the safe limit, the greatest perchloroethylene level was 43 times over the safe limit. The concentration of PFAS, which are still lurking on at least 14 sites of the installation, was 172,000 parts per trillion when the safe limit is only 70 parts per trillion.
ABC One-Hour Cleaners, a dry-cleaning firm, was the culprit behind contamination with trichloroethylene, one of the numerous industrial solvents polluting the military base. Contamination with other toxic chemicals resulted from service members inadequately using and disposing of industrial solvents after cleaning up weapons and equipment. As for PFAS, a group of over 5,000 substances often dubbed “forever chemicals,” their source was military firefighters and trainees employing the fire suppressant AFFF to put out jet fuel and petroleum fires. It contains between 50% and 98% PFAS, which makes it highly dangerous.
Most future Marines and Sailors had to train at Camp Lejeune for several months, which is why they are now at high risk of developing awful health problems such as kidney cancer, leukemia, prostate cancer, cognitive disability, brain cancer, female infertility, and lung cancer. The cost of healthcare and treatment for malignant diseases is very high – for instance, tumor resection for brain cancer may reach $700,000, whereas thyroid cancer surgery can deplete veterans of $40,000. Until recently, the only source of compensation for these veterans was the VA. However, the VA currently approves only 17% of the claims filed by Camp Lejeune veterans, which is unsettling.
How the VA Has Been Failing Camp Lejeune Veterans by Unjustly Denying Them Access to Compensation
In August 2012, the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act became law, by virtue of which toxic exposure victims finally had access to VA benefits. Still, the claim approval rate was low, with only 25% of veterans receiving disability compensation. Worse, the claim approval rate dropped even more shortly after. As a result, only 5% of the Camp Lejeune veterans struggling with terrible diseases were given disability compensation. Out of the lucky veterans whose claims were approved, likely, some had not been assigned the correct disability rating, thereby receiving less money.
So few veterans who spent time at Camp Lejeune were granted compensation soon came to light because the VA had been using alleged “subject matter experts” since 2012 to review the claims of injured veterans. Some doctors lacked the expertise to assess and diagnose veterans with a history of toxic exposure, hence the high claim denial rate. Furthermore, most of the “subject matter experts” were general and preventive medicine doctors who were unqualified and underprepared to evaluate health problems that are so complex.
Following his investigation on why so many Camp Lejeune veterans are denied the compensation they deserve, Mike Wishnie, who runs the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, said, “not all of them appeared to have the qualifications for the job they’re doing.” Now, the claim approval rate for Camp Lejeune veterans is 17%, which is a slight improvement but remains alarmingly low. “The system isn’t working. It’s completely failing veterans,” said Wishnie. On the other hand, the VA claims that their doctors have “appropriate credentials” and underwent four hours of training on health issues related to Camp Lejeune.
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act, a Game Changer for Camp Lejeune Veterans
On August 2, 2022, the Senate voted to pass the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, a bill meant to allow veterans affected by toxic exposure to seek reparations outside the VA. Representative Matt Cartwright proposed it in 2021. Nine days later, President Joe Biden, who had shown his support for the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, signed it into law as part of the Honoring our PACT Act. This new law brings about good news for veterans who experience the impact of toxic exposure.
“We failed our veterans, and it is up to us to make it right. Our bipartisan bill eliminates burdensome red tape to ensure that those exposed to toxic chemicals can receive their day in court,” said Representative Greg Murphy, another supporter of the bill. The Camp Lejeune Justice Act enables veterans to take legal action against the U.S. government by filing a claim. It is essential to note that veterans are entitled to VA benefits and financial compensation from the government.
Moreover, the new law allows everyone who lived at Camp Lejeune between August 1, 1953, and December 31, 1987, for at least one month and came to struggle with a related health problem to seek legal recourse, including the family members of veterans, civilians, and the spouses of veterans whose children were born with congenital birth defects. To ensure people will obtain the money they are eligible for, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act prohibits the U.S. government from asserting immunity in response to any lawsuit.
Finally, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act invests the district court for the Eastern District of North Carolina with exclusive jurisdiction over any lawsuit filed by toxic exposure victims. In addition to Representative Greg Murphy, there were 14 other authority figures introducing the bill. “As the proud representative of more than 89,000 veterans, I am honored to lead the effort to make sure our Camp Lejeune community gets the long-overdue care and benefits they’ve earned,” said Representative Greg Murphy.