Eddie Peterson is just one Marine veteran waiting for his day in court after being exposed to toxic drinking water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in the 1970s and contracting Parkinson’s disease. More than 93,000 other veterans, family members, and civilian employees have also filed claims under the Camp Lejeune Justice Act.
Department of the Navy spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Keiley said the Navy is implementing IT solutions and increasing staff to expedite claims and has begun processing 17,000 of them under the Act. The Marine Corps is a division of the Navy.
Lt. Cmdr. Keiley said the Navy is also working with the Department of Justice to “develop an early-resolution framework” to assist with other claims slated to be heard through normal administrative and litigation processes. He said that finalizing the framework will bring relief to those affected more quickly, although as of mid-August, no case has gone to trial.
After graduating from law school, Mr. Peterson, now 76, served as a judge advocate for the Marines, stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina between 1975 and 1977. As many as a million people who served and lived on the base from 1953 to 1987 were exposed to toxic drinking water tainted with trichloroethylene (TCE) and other chemicals linked to conditions like leukemia, bladder, breast, and kidney cancer, as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, female infertility and miscarriage, and neurobehavioral effects, like Parkinson’s, which is 70 percent more likely to affect Camp Lejeune veterans than those at any other U.S. base.
The Marine Corps knew about the contaminated water by the early 1980s but did not begin contacting most former residents about possible exposure until 1999. In 2008, Congress required the Marine Corps to contact those exposed about the actual risk from the chemicals they consumed. By then, many of those exposed were dead or dying from conditions associated with the base’s water.
Mr. Peterson’s Parkinson’s diagnosis had come in 2001, and he did not make the connection to Camp Lejeune for more than a decade, when he finally received a health-related questionnaire in the mail from the Marine Corps.
When Mr. Peterson considered a legal path forward, the North Carolina statute of limitations had already expired, barring him and others from filing negligence lawsuits against the government.
But in 2022, President Joe Biden signed the PACT Act, which provides government benefits to post-9/11 veterans exposed to burn pits. The bill also gave Camp Lejeune water victims a legal path to sue the government. Mr. Peterson called what was done to him and others a “crime against humanity” because of the long delay in contacting veterans and their families.
Although many veterans have opted for benefits under the PACT Act, Camp Lejeune victims who have sued are still waiting for the Eastern District of North Carolina, where the cases are consolidated in what is predicted to be the largest mass tort litigation in history, to move forward. Many plaintiffs suing for negligence have died and their claims are now brought by their families for wrongful death.
In late July, the four Eastern District judges overseeing all water-related civil cases chose a leadership team of seven lawyers representing the plaintiffs. They will work in tandem to propose settlement levels based on plaintiffs’ medical conditions and will also take specific bellwether cases to trial.
Ed Bell has been named lead counsel. His firm, the Bell Legal Group, handles 85 percent of the civil cases, currently overseen by the Eastern District of North Carolina. Bell Legal Group partner, Eric Flynn, said about 20 percent of their Camp Lejeune cases after the PACT Act are wrongful death claims, some of which started out that way and some were filed by plaintiffs who have since died.
A recent report by Military.com found Marines onboard the USS Boxer in 2016 were poisoned by the ship’s potable water, which the Navy only acknowledged after reporters concluded a five-year investigation. Marines aboard the Boxer told reporters that the Department of Veterans Affairs had denied their disability claims because they did not have evidence the water was poisoned, although they contend that was because the Navy buried the evidence.
As the PACT Act was being discussed in Congress, military families at a base in Honolulu were sickened by drinking water contaminated by a petroleum leak. The Navy planned to fight an order to shut the petroleum storage facility down but complied a month later as congressional hearings neared.
Mr. Peterson said the military’s past behavior is exactly why he and others must have their day in court.