“We are denying the claims to free everybody to take their own course of action,” Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer said.
24 Jan 2019 | Courtney Kube | NBC News
The secretary of the Navy is denying all remaining civil claims by individuals exposed to contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, leaving roughly 4,500 plaintiffs with claims of more than $963 billion in damages with no cash payouts.
In an exclusive interview with NBC News, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer defended the decision, saying the law does not support the claims.
“There is no legal way for the Department of the Navy” to pay damages in these cases, Spencer said. “We are denying the claims to free everybody to take their own course of action.”
Spencer acknowledged this will be “tremendously difficult” for the veterans and their families, who will have little chance of receiving a large monetary payout for their losses. Individuals have six months to appeal the decision.
The announcement drew a stinging response from Jerry Ensminger, a Marine veteran who spent 11 years at Camp Lejeune starting in 1970.
“I’m pissed off,” said Ensminger, 66, of North Carolina. “The federal government knows they are guilty, so they’re using every available legal gymnastics to exonerate themselves.”
Ensminger’s daughter, Janey, died of cancer at the age of nine in 1985. He said she was the only one of his four children who was conceived and carried while the family was living at Camp Lejeune.
Spurred by Ensminger, Congress passed a bill in 2012 that forced the Department of Veterans Affairs to extend free medical care to veterans and their families exposed to the tainted water.
“It’s kind of ironic that we have a part of our federal government that was created to protect our country and our way of life, and these people are now known to be our nation’s largest polluter,” Ensminger said.
Believed to be one of the largest water contamination cases in U.S. history, there are roughly 4,500 open tort claims against the Department of the Navy. The Navy wasn’t able to provide the exact number of people involved since some claims were filed by groups, and new ones are still coming in. One claim alone sought $900 billion in damages.
From the 1950s until the late 1980s, people living or working at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in Jacksonville, North Carolina may have been exposed to the drinking water contaminated with dangerous chemicals, according to numerous government studies. Two contaminated wells closed in 1985 but sailors, Marines, families and civilians on the base had already been exposed to the contaminants for decades.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has estimated that up to 900,000 service members were potentially exposed to the contaminated water. In 2017, the Obama administration agreed to provide disability benefits totaling more than $2 billion to the veterans who had been exposed to the tainted drinking water while assigned to Camp Lejeune.
The rule covers veterans who were diagnosed with one of 15 diseases, including leukemia, liver cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
The denial of the claims will not impact medical care or disability benefits for the thousands receiving treatment.
Speaking to NBC News, Spencer said his decision was based on the fact that three separate legal statutes make the government immune from the claims.