Lawmakers rush bill to protect Lejeune, Asheville residents in pollution cases

cjarvis@newsobserver.comJune 14, 2014 

  • The Lejeune story

    Q What was wrong with the water at Camp Lejeune?

    A The Marine Corps base’s tapwater was contaminated with trichloroethylene, or TCE; tetrachloroethylene, or PCE; vinyl chloride; benzene, a key component of gasoline and a known human carcinogen; and other chemicals. The chemicals came from leaking underground storage tanks, a leaky fuel depot and cleaning solvents that had gotten into the ground water wells that supplied the camp’s drinking water.

    Q How many people were exposed?

    A The contamination affects people who worked or lived on the base from the 1950s until 1987, an estimated 1 million people. It’s unknown how many could be ill.

    Q What has the government done about it?

    A After decades of activism on behalf of Marine families and denials of problems by the Marine Corps, Congress got involved.

    North Carolina’s Democratic and Republican members worked to get legislation to help the families, resulting in the Camp Lejeune Veterans and Family Act, which became law in 2012. It requires the federal government to provide medical care and screening for Marines and their families, but not civilians, exposed between 1957 and 1987.

    Q What diseases does the law cover?

    A Fifteen diseases or conditions, including female infertility, miscarriage, leukemia, and bladder, breast, esophageal, kidney and lung cancers.

State lawmakers are rushing through a bill that would counter a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week that potentially hobbled groundwater contamination lawsuits by families at Camp Lejeune and in an Asheville neighborhood.

The bill would eliminate the state prohibition on lawsuits being filed 10 years after the last pollution occurred or from the time a polluted property was sold. Sometimes people don’t know they have been exposed to potentially deadly pollution until much later.

The legislation is aimed at helping the families affected by pollution in those two areas of the state but would apply anywhere in North Carolina.

It marks an unusual moment in the 3-1/2 years that Republicans have controlled the General Assembly and found themselves routinely accused by environmental advocates of stripping protections through deregulation. In this case, it is the House GOP leadership leading the charge against polluters.

“The legislature is going to do whatever we can to ensure that the citizens of North Carolina are able to pursue lawsuits against possible contamination,” House Speaker Thom Tillis is quoted saying in a statement his office issued.

Cassie Gavin, director of government affairs for the state chapter of the Sierra Club, on Friday called it “a refreshing example of bipartisan cooperation in the face of an environmental problem.”

An unrelated bill – SB574 – was stripped of its language and the new legislation inserted without advance notice on Thursday morning, and brought to the floor for a vote by the full chamber the same day. The House approved it unanimously, and the bill has been expedited to the Senate for immediate attention.

Prompting the rush were two developments on Monday that went against families at the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base in Jacksonville and the residents of an Asheville subdivision.

The Asheville residents learned in 2009 that their well water had carcinogenic chemicals in it, and in 2011 they sued CTS Corp. That was 24 years after the company owned an electronics manufacturing plant there; the land was sold, and later homes were built on it.

An appeals court said the lawsuit could proceed because federal law, which imposes a two-year statute of limitations after the harm is discovered, pre-empted North Carolina’s 10-year “statute of repose” law tied to the sale of the property.

Dismissal sought

But on Monday, the Supreme Court disagreed. That prompted attorneys for the Obama administration to ask an appeals court to dismiss a lawsuit brought over contaminated tapwater at Lejeune.

The contamination was caused by chemicals released from a dry cleaning facility and a leaking fuel depot as well as underground storage tanks, and affected those who lived and worked on the Marine base for more than three decades.

The House has stepped in to lift the state’s 10-year limit and allow lawsuits alleging injury or property damage from groundwater contaminated by hazardous substances anywhere in the state to proceed without time constraints. If the bill becomes law, it could change the outcome of the lawsuits.

An attorney for the Asheville residents, John Korzen, who is also director of the Appellate Advocacy Clinic at Wake Forest University, said Friday that he thinks such a law would mean the plaintiffs in Asheville and Lejeune could continue their lawsuits. He noted that the federal government and CTS attorneys could argue otherwise, and he pointed out the bill – even though fast-tracked – isn’t the law yet.

“There are a lot of ups and downs along the way,” Korzen said. “Monday was a down. The legislature acting so quickly to clarify things is an up.”

Unresolved issues

Narenda Ghosh, a Chapel Hill attorney who has been involved in the Lejeune cases, agreed the Supreme Court ruling doesn’t end the lawsuits, because there are additional legal issues to resolve. He said there is case law holding that North Carolina’s statute of repose law doesn’t apply to claims involving diseases that appear after a long time.

Republican lawmakers representing the districts where the two cases are situated have signed onto the bill: Rep. Rick Catlin of Wilmington, Rep. Tim Moffitt of Asheville, Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville and Rep. Nathan Ramsey of Fairview.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576; Twitter: @CraigJ_NandO

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