Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer last week denied claims for financial compensation from 4400 claims (some claims were made on behalf of groups of people) that alleged people exposed were made ill by contaminated drinking water at the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. The claims have been filed since 1999, and all together the claims totalled $963 billion, with one claim alone for $900 billion. Stars and Stripes reported that the health benefits for impacted persons are not impacted – they can still receive free health care for claims related to exposure.
- Over 1 million military personnel and their family members were stationed at the US Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987.
- During this time, the people living on the base, military and civilian, ingested and bathed in water that had been contaminated with chemicals from the base water treatment facilities and a dry cleaning company in the local area.
- Congress mandated in 2012 that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provide health-care benefits provided benefits to the impacted families — DOD had previously denied responsibility for impacts.
- The contamination was linked to exposure to Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).
A study released in April 2018 by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found that these industrial chemicals are linked to an increased risk for bladder cancer, kidney cancer, and kidney disease, and they have also been linked to an increased risk of adverse birth outcomes and other health effects.
The Secretary claimed that he did not have the authority under the law to grant the claims — generally, the federal government cannot be sued by its employees or members of the military for claims for costs or damages.
Why This Matters: This is yet another example of the Trump Administration appearing to be callous in the face of pain and suffering of innocent people caused by its actions — and to deny these claims while the shutdown was ongoing seems particularly tone deaf. However, the Secretary is correct when it comes to the law — the government is immune from private lawsuits or claims for damages like this. Still, the Secretary could have called on Congress to take action to provide financial compensation to these victims over and above the health care benefits the VA is already providing. That would have been the right thing to do for our Veterans and their families. Congress could and should take action.