CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. (WECT) – Decades after consuming contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune, victims who suffered adverse health effects may be allowed to recover monetary damages from the US Government. Federal lawmakers, including Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, are trying to pass legislation to help former residents and workers on the Marine base who developed illnesses linked to tainted well water they consumed while living there.
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022, which is now part of a larger bill making its way through Congress, is a bipartisan bill to improve health care and benefits for veterans exposed to toxic substances. It has already passed the House, and is expected to be voted on in the Senate in the near future.
If passed, it would allow anyone who lived or worked at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days between August 1, 1953 and December 31, 1987, and later suffered an illness linked to the contamination to sue the government for damages. The statute of repose for that type of lawsuit ordinarily expires after ten years.
Kitty Worthington of Hampstead is watching the legislation closely. She and her three siblings lived on base at Camp Lejeune for several years in the 1960s. Her two younger siblings, Annie and Ronald Costantino, were born on base, and both of them died by they 40th birthdays of cancer. A short time after her siblings passed away, Worthington’s parents, Ronald and Pat Costantino, also died of cancer. The types of cancers they suffered varied, but all have been linked to chemical contamination at Camp Lejeune.
“You’re empty, you know? You have this family. And now that family is gone. And you think about all the great times because we were a very close family,” Worthington said of her loss. “It’s about time that somebody stand up and start [taking] responsibility as to what they’ve done to families.”
The chemical contamination of drinking water wells at Camp Lejeune is believed to have been caused by an underground fuel tank that may have leaked more than a million gallons of fuel over the years, as well as toxins from a nearby dry cleaning business, and other chemicals that were used for military operations on the base.
A 2013 study by the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) found that vinyl chloride, trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE – used in dry cleaning and as a degreaser), and benzene (a fuel component) in the well water at Camp Lejeune reached levels that were exponentially higher than what regulators consider to be safe today. Experts say it was some of the most highly contaminated drinking water ever discovered in the United States.
Close to one million people lived and worked at Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987, many of them bathing in and consuming the contaminated water. The ATSDR study compared causes of death for thousands of Marines and personnel stationed at Lejeune, and Camp Pendleton in California (where the water was not contaminated) during the time period in question. They found that the Camp Lejeune group had significantly higher mortality rates for cancers of the cervix, esophagus, kidney, liver, lung, pancreas, prostate, rectum and soft tissue, as well as Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, and multiple sclerosis. The longer someone lived at Camp Lejeune, the more likely they were to suffer from one of these ailments.
Specifically, the incidence of kidney cancer for personnel stationed at Lejeune was 35% higher than Pendleton. Liver cancer was 42% higher at Lejeune, esophageal cancer was 43% higher, and cervical cancer was 33% higher. Cases of Hodgkins lymphoma were 47% higher at Lejeune, and multiple myeloma cases were 68% higher.
The USMC’s slow response after being made aware of the contaminated water is one reason why lawmakers believe people who suffered medical complications after drinking the water are entitled to be compensated.
In 1980, in accordance with new regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency, Camp Lejeune officials began testing drinking water on base, and found it to be contaminated. In 1982, The United States Marine Corps hired Grainger Laboratories to further examine the water, and analysts confirmed the water was contaminated. But according to published reports, their warnings about the drinking water initially went unheeded by the Marine Corps. The wells continued to be used for drinking water for several more years.
In the years since then, people who lived on base have shared stories of developing rare cancers, delivering children with birth defects, or having children die of cancer they suspected was linked to their consumption of the contaminated water.
In 2012, President Barrack Obama signed a bill into law called the Janey Ensminger Act. It is named in honor of a 9-year-old girl who died of leukemia in 1985. Her father, Jerry, was a Marine and the family lived on base at Camp Lejeune. It wasn’t until years later he would learn contaminated drinking water on base could have caused Janey’s death. He spent countless hours since then lobbying for justice for his daughter. The law in her name provides healthcare to family members of veterans who lived at Camp Lejeune while the water was contaminated, a major milestone for those who have suffered health consequences after living on base.
If passed, the bill now making its way through Congress would allow veterans and non-veterans who lived or worked on base to sue in federal court if they have been diagnosed with a cancer or other malady associated with water contamination at Camp Lejeune.
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