Camp Lejeune, located in Jacksonville, North Carolina, is a 246 square-mile Marine Corps base opened in 1941. Shortly after opening, the base was subject to large scale water contamination due to the disposal practices of an off-base dry cleaning operation. It is estimated that as early as 1948 chemicals from the operation infiltrated the water system through at least two of the base’s eight water treatment plants.
The chemicals, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), included perchloroethylene (PCE) a dry-cleaning agent, trichloroethylene (TCE), a degreaser and paint stripper, and benzene, a component of gasoline. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) studies have shown that TCE contamination was as severe as 1,400 parts per billion (ppb) in May of 1982. (The currently accepted limit for TCE in drinking water is 5 ppb.) This contaminated water was used for everything from drinking to bathing for those stationed at Camp Lejeune.
Upon the official findings of the ATSDR, the Marine Corps started a congressionally mandated notification campaign to former residents of the base in 2008. There is now a registry of more than 135,000 people who worked or lived at Camp Lejeune from the 1950s through the 1980s.
While stationed at the base, veterans, their families, and civilian workers were all subjected to levels of chemicals vastly exceeding those deemed acceptable by the government for consumption. The elevated levels of chemicals were subsequently linked to a number of diseases that veterans and their families later developed. ATSDR studies along with subsequent scientific inquiry have linked at least fifteen diseases to exposure to the chemicals. The diseases are as follows:
- Esophageal cancer
- Lung cancer
- Breast cancer
- Bladder cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Multiple myeloma
- Myleodysplasic syndromes
- Renal toxicity
- Hepatic steatosis
- Female infertility
- Neurobehavioral effects
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
As of 2012, Congress made free healthcare available to Camp Lejeune veterans for these diseases provided that they might certain requirements. Those who have an eligible discharge are entitled to free hospital care and medical services for the aforementioned diseases if they were served on active duty at Camp Lejeune for 30 days or more between January 1, 1957 and December 31, 1987. The VA also provides reimbursement for out of pocket expenses of qualifying family members of veterans who were also exposed to the water at Camp Lejeune. (Reimbursement is paid to family members after all other healthcare plans have made their payments.) These benefits are provided under the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Families of Camp Lejeune Act of 2012.
Interestingly, while this Act provides for benefits so long as the requirements are met, it does not provide a presumption of service connection for the same diseases (as it does with veterans of Vietnam and Agent Orange exposure). With each of the diseases that Camp Lejeune veterans are entitled to treatment for, they must still prove to the VA that their disease is “as likely as not” connected to their service and time at Camp Lejeune.
The VA has tended to be reluctant to grant these claims as it opens a potential for a flood of claims as there where in the upwards of a million individuals exposed to the chemicals in the water from the 1950s to 19987. Currently, there are at least three notable cases in which the VA has granted 100% disability based on a veterans time at Camp Lejeune. However, as of August 3, 2015, the VA has announced that it is opening discussion for the potential of presumptions related to the chemical exposure. On August 19, VA and ATSDR representatives met to begin the discussion of how to establish such presumptions. The VA has claimed on their site that they will be working not only with ATSDR, but will also be working in conjunction with the National Academy of Sciences and considering public comments closely when determining what presumptions should be granted.
While confusion abounds about what type of benefits are available to Camp Lejeune veterans, this article aims to help illuminate the facts of where Congress and the VA stand on the issues faced by Camp Lejeune veterans. Please be on the lookout for further posts regarding the development of the presumptions for Camp Lejeune veterans and their families. When there is further word, we will do our best as always to explain and disseminate such information.