Point of View

Obama must stand with Camp Lejeune pollution victims

June 27, 2014 

The growing scandal that engulfed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs overshadowed other actions by the Obama administration that further call into question its policies to protect the men and women who have served in the armed forces.

Behind the scenes, the U.S. Department of Justice is actively working to avoid compensating military families who were sickened by contaminated water at the U.S. Marines' Camp Lejeune base in Jacksonville.

On June 9, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision that could prevent these families from getting the justice they deserve. In CTS Corp. v. Waldburger, the Court ruled that federal law does not supplant a North Carolina time limit that may bar homeowners in the city of Asheville from filing claims against the company responsible for dumping pollutants in their backyards years earlier.

The court's ruling was exactly what the U.S. Department of Justice wanted. In a brief and at oral argument in the CTS case, the administration's lawyers sided with the company, noting specifically that the case could affect the ongoing Camp Lejeune litigation.

Then, just hours after the Supreme Court decided against the homeowners, the federal government, citing the opinion, moved quickly to try to have the claims of the Camp Lejeune victims dismissed.

The move undermines President Obama's pledge to stand with the veterans from Camp Lejeune, the site of one of the worst water contamination cases in U.S. history. The President made that promise in 2012 when he signed a bill guaranteeing federal health benefits to those affected by the contamination. That law, the Janey Ensminger Act, is named after a nine-year-old girl who lived on the base and died of leukemia.

She was hardly the only victim. The Camp Lejeune pollution has been linked to at least 84 cases of male breast cancer and thousands more diagnoses of rare cancers, leukemia, birth defects and other serious illnesses. What's worse, senior military leaders knew about the contamination but kept it secret until two veterans, one of them Janey's father, started asking hard questions.

Despite the administration's shocking legal positioning, the Camp Lejeune veterans continue their fight for justice - and are getting help from North Carolina. Gov. Pat McCrory recently signed a bill into law that would clarify that the state law cited in the Asheville case does not apply to certain groundwater contamination claims. The new law, passed by both the N.C. House and Senate unanimously, would allow victims to sue a polluter even if they discovered the contamination more than 10 years after the dumping stopped.

It is the government's responsibility to ensure that Camp Lejeune families harmed by toxic pollution get the justice that they deserve. In a similar case involving groundwater contamination in New York State in the early 2000s, the Clinton and Bush administrations backed the homeowners against the polluters. Sadly, it is now clear that the Obama administration decided to abandon that responsibility.

Heather White is the executive director of Environmental Working Group, a national environmental health research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.

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