Camp Lejeune water contamination: what happened at US Marine Corps base as PACT Act paves way for lawsuits

The Camp Lejeune Justice Act was a crucial moment in the campaign for restitution for those affected by contaminated water at the base

The Camp Lejeune contaminated water scandal could become the largest mass litigation in US history, after a new act paved the way for thousands of lawsuits.

It’s thought that around one million people could have been affected by using the water at the North Carolina Marine Corps base over a period of more than 30 years. It was filled with chemicals up to 280 times higher than the safe exposure limits. Former residents have experienced a variety of health problems such as Parkinson’s Disease, various cancers - including kidney, lung and bladder, leukaemia, renal failure, and miscarriages and birth defects.

A Supreme Court ruling in 1950 set the precedent that members of the US military could not bring claims against the government for damages for injuries arising from their service. It was a barrier to claiming compensation those affected by the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune - but new legislation signed into law by President Joe Biden has changed this. And in the months since it was implemented over 10,000 claims have been submitted.

For years campaigners had been calling for healthcare provision and redress for those affected by what happened at Camp Lejeune. Among those who have taken up the cause is Erin Brockovich, whose own battle in building a case against Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) involving groundwater contamination in Hinkley, California was turned into a film starring Julia Roberts.

And the scope of the contaminated water exposure possibily extends beyond the US as members of the British armed forces were known to spend time there. NationalWorld spoke to lawyers from the US and UK about the situation, as well as someone whose family has been affected by the devastating consequences of the contaminated water.

Erin Brockovich, who brought her own environmental contamination suit, Anderson vs. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), is supporting the Camp Lejeune claimants. Credit: TIM SLOAN/AFP via Getty Images

What happened at Camp Lejeune?

Camp Lejeune is a Marine Corps Base and the sprawling military training facility is in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Over a period of three decades the water supply on the base was contaminated. This lasted from1953 to 1987 and meant marines and their families stationed at the main base and other areas such as the, barracks, family housing, Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point, drank and bathed in contaminated water.

The supply at two of the wells at the base was contaminated. The main chemicals found in the water were Trichloroethylene (TCE), Tetrachloroethylene (PCE), Vinyl chloride (VC), and Benzene, all of which are known or thought to be likely carcinogens. It transpired that the water was contaminated with chemicals up to 280 times higher than the safe exposure limits.

At least 15 illnesses have been linked to the toxic water. Former residents have experienced a variety of health problems such as Parkinson’s Disease, various cancers - including kidney, lung and bladder, leukaemia, renal failure, and miscarriages and birth defects.

Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune is near Jacksonville, North Carolina. Credit: Kim Mogg

In 1999 the US Marine Corps (USMC) began to notify former base residents that they might have consumed contaminated water. In 2005 the US Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigated the USMC’s handling of the issue, and reported that they found no criminal conduct by USMC officials. The following year the USMC began a Congressionally required notification campaign to notify former base residents of the issue. An online health registry now contains more than 135,000 names.

In February 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune significantly increased the risk of possibly contracting multiple diseases.

The US Marine Corps states on its website that since 1991 it had supported public health organisations studying health issues that may have resulted from the contaminated water. It also has been working to notify those who may have been exposed.

A new law has paved the way for those affected by contaminated water at Camp Lejeune to bring a case for compensation.

Personal injury lawyer, Jeff Marion, whose office is based in Williamsville, New York, takes military medical negligence cases. Marion has made a number of video about Camp Lejeune for his YouTube channel, and said: “Ultimately what happened is for those who visited or lived on the base, there’s potentially a million or more people that were exposed to TCE and PCE, both known carcinogens, Benzene, also a carcinogen.

“As long as you were on the base for any 30 days, and not even a consecutive 30 days, you are presumed to have consumed enough water that if you have certain diseases, mostly cancers you can be presumed to have been exposed.

“I think this may be a bit wider than just simply United States Marines and their families. Because there are birth defects, there are all kinds of things. So this affected generations.”

Julia Roberts who won an Oscar in 2000 for Erin Brockovich. Credit: BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

What is the PACT Act?

It is a new law that expands Veterans Affairs health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances. It added to the list of health conditions that could be assumed were caused by exposure to these substances.

In 2009 the US federal government initiated investigations into the allegations of contaminated water and failures by US Marine officials to act on the issue. Three years later a law was brought in for the provision of medical care for those who may have been affected by the contamination.

The PACT Act was signed into law on 10 August this year, and significantly it included the Camp Lejeune Justice Act - something campaigners had been calling for over some time. A 10-year time limit in North Carolina for injured parties to file claims, the 1950 Supreme Court ruling, and the US government having protection where negligence was not clearly established were all previous roadblocks to lawsuits.

However, the legislation means veterans and their families could pursue compensation if they had developed serious illnesses from water contamination. The action is available to those who were exposed for at least 30 days, and they have until 10 August 2024 to file claims.

It is the first such law that provides compensation to the civilian family members of veterans stationed at the base as well as those who came onto the base for work.

A spokesperson for the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG), the legal arm of the US Navy told NationalWorld that to date, approximately 14,000 claims have been filed under the Camp Lejeune Justice Act.

Marion said the PACT Act in relation to Camp Lejeune created a “presumption of exposure and a presumption of certain disabilities”, and as well as benefitting those affected in the US, also made it easier for any military outwith the country - such as the UK, who was affected to claim compensation. He said: “All you have to prove is that it is at least as likely as not that your cancer or your Parkinson's or your blood disease, was caused by exposure to the water.”

He went on to advise those looking to seek compensation to choose the right lawyer and to take care of scams, Marion said: “There are a lot of attorneys who are not qualified to be handling these cases, because it takes a certain type of attorney to handle veterans law and understand what veterans expect of an attorney.

“Simple things like when the phone rings when the veteran calls the office, somebody picks up and updates them and they actually get to talk to the attorney.

He added: “There's all kinds of ‘Oh, you're already entitled to compensation, there's a settlement fund.’ None of that exists. You can go down a rabbit hole on YouTube or on Google and you can get led into all kinds of scams.”

Peter Lipinski was stationed at Camp Lejeune for four years and died in 1997 after being diagnosed with cancer.

How were veterans affected by the contaminated water?

Marion’s client Debbie Lipinski watched her dad Peter die when he was just 55 years old. Peter had been a marine and was stationed at Camp Lejeune for four years from around 1958 to 1962. Debbie, 54, from Buffalo, New York, said: “It was a complete surprise. There was four of us kids. So my, my father was a workhorse. And he instilled that through all of us kids, throughout the time, living at home, I don’t ever remember my father even having a cold. So when he got sick, we were all like flabbergasted, didn’t expect it came out of nowhere.

“So the situation was pretty rough, when we found out that he had gotten sick. When he got sick, he was in the hospital for three months, and then he passed away. So really, there was no time from the time he got sick from the time that he passed away. We were just trying to figure out why. Why God chose my father.”

Debbie’s dad was a trained recon marine - which is similar to the British SAS. He had been in Okinawa in Japan and then went to Camp Lejeune.

He became ill in May 1997 and passed away a few months later and Debbie said: “It was to the point where he was critically ill at that point. Things were going on with him where he was losing his eyesight.

“He was dragging one of his legs behind him. And he couldn’t figure out what was what was wrong with him. So we took him to the hospital immediately, especially for his eyesight. They ran every test they possibly could and found out that he was in the final stages of cancer.

“He had cancer in his kidneys. He had cancer in his spine. He had cancer in his spleen. He had cancer in his lymph nodes. He had tumours in his brain. He had tumours in his lungs. Everywhere his his whole body was filled with cancer.”

“It was devastating. You know, we were in the hospital one day, and I was walking behind him. And you know, he was dragging his leg. So he was holding on to my mom, because he couldn’t walk. He took a look behind to make sure I was there - like a comfort. He looked straight in my eyes and he said to me, ‘I can’t believe I’m gonna die.’ I’ll never forget that image.”

Debbie Lipinski (left) pictured with her dad Peter.

Debbie connected what happened to her dad with Camp Lejeune “through the government coming forward and finally admitting that marines that were stationed at the base at the camp were subjected were subjected to toxins.”

She went on to say: “You just never know what could happen. Be careful. Check things out prior. But again, everything was hidden and everything was secret. There was no way to know whether somebody was safe or not -  and he wasn’t safe.”

Could UK service personnel be affected?

While there are no figures which could shed light on the number of former UK service personnel who could have been impacted by contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, members of the UK military have spent time there over the years.

The camp hosts an annual Intramural Rifle and Pistol Competition in which Royal Marines regularly compete and military exercises.

Simon Ellis head of the military team at Hugh James Solicitors said due to the close links between the US and the UK, it was common for members of the armed forces to go to the base and serve there for periods of time.

Simon Ellis from Hugh James.

He said: “That means that there will be military personnel from the UK, presumably former at this point, but nevertheless, quite a number, potentially, together with their families, who are likely to have spent periods of time at completion during a period when it is now known that the water was dangerous. We’re talking about a period here of 35 years or so during which there were regular exchanges of military personnel.

“That potentially means anybody from the UK military who went over there on an exercise on an exchange to take part for example, in the shooting competition, may well have been there for the minimum 30 days or more, and that potentially brings them within the remit of the act.”

He added: “In August of this year, a two year window was was opened and during that period, anyone who feels that they have suffered an illness as a result of the time spent there is able to bring a claim.”