Camp Lejeune Brain Cancer Cases, Lawsuit Filed in District Court

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Alabama Marine veteran files suit in District court for the death of one child and the injury to another from Camp Lejeune’s contaminated well water.

(Birmingham, AL) – No one wants to see their children die from brain cancer. Former Camp Lejeune Marine John Edwards and his wife Connie witnessed the death of their daughter from brain cancer and the suffering of their son from the same illness.

Courtesy: CNN

Attorneys for John and Connie Edwards filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for Northern District of Alabama on July 26, 2010. The lawsuit alleges that Jennifer, their daughter, died of brain cancer from exposure to contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune in the 1980s and Lee Edwards, their son, suffers from the effects of astrocytoma, state 2, brain cancer. Jennifer Edwards died at age 14, just one day after she was hospitalized. Jennifer and Lee lived on the base from March 1985 until June 1988.

According to the Birmingham News , “Her brother, Lee, was diagnosed with a type of brain cancer in July 2009 and had to have surgery to remove a lesion. Lee’s brain cancer is incurable.”

A number of veterans and dependents of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina continue to suffer from cancer linked to their exposure to organic solvents like trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, and benzene in the base wells. The contaminated wells are closed now but for those exposed to the drinking water, there’s no way to reset the clock.

The Navy and Marine Corps deny that the base’s contaminated water caused cancer and other serious illnesses.

According to the lawsuit, the Marine Corps should have known that water contaminated chlorinated solvents would likely cause a variety of health problems, including cancers, liver and kidney damage, central nervous system disturbances, disfigurement, suffering and possibly death.

The Birmingham News reported that Jennifer Zeldis, public affairs officer for the Navy’s Judge Advocate General states that, “two lawsuits over the contamination have been dismissed and four others, including the Edwards’ case, are pending.”

Several thousand administrative claims (SF-95s) have been filed with the Navy for injuries linked to the Camp Lejeune’s water wells.

Camp Lejeune One of Many Bases

Camp Lejeune is one of the 130 military bases on the EPA National Priority List (Superfund list). Many bases are contaminated with the same organic solvents as Camp Lejeune. With the sole exception of Camp Lejeune, there’s no government policy to notify veterans and dependents of their possible exposure to toxic contaminants. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee estimated the number exposed at Camp Lejeune may be as high as 500,000.

Former Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) El Toro, California is another military base on the National Priority List. The organic solvent contamination of soil and groundwater at El Toro is shared by many military bases. Millions of dollars were spent in remediation by the Navy. However, like other veterans, no El Toro veteran was ever notified of the health effects of exposure to organic solvents, toxic medals, and radionuclides.

Senators Elizabeth Dole and Jim Jeffords were instrumental in including a provision in the defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2008 to require the Navy and Marine Corps to notify potential victims of past water contamination at Camp Lejeune.

Dole’s provision required the Secretary of the Navy to directly notify Marines, dependents and civilian employees who were assigned at Camp Lejeune between 1958 and 1987 that they were exposed to harmful chemicals in the installation’s water system. The last contaminated wells were closed in 1987. The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has found that babies exposed in utero to the drinking water developed leukemia and other cancers, as well as birth defects, such as spina bifida and cleft palate.

According to the Birmingham News, “Connie Edwards said they never heard anything about water contamination until a relative saw a news report in North Carolina several years after Jennifer died.” No one from the Navy or Marine Corps ever contacted the Edwards.

Thousands have served at Camp Lejeune and other military installations listed on the EPA Superfund list. The number exposed to environmental hazards like organic solvents used to degrease aircraft and other military vehicles and now ill may be impossible to estimate.

The Agency for Toxic Substance Disease Registry (ATSDR)—a Federal government agency responsible for public health assessments of EPA Superfund sites – reported health problems in people of all ages from drinking water contaminated with organic solvents. These include aplastic anemia, bladder cancer, brain cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, esophageal cancer, and Hodgkin’s disease.

Veteran Websites

A number of websites have been established to help spread the news to other veterans, dependents and civilian workers of Camp Lejeune. One website founded by two North Carolina dependents is the STAND.

The STAND, an internet website (watersurvivors.com) was established in 2000 by Terry Dyer who was nearly 2 when her family moved to Lejeune’s Tarawa Terrace, where they lived from 1958 to 1973. She and her two sisters all have had radical hysterectomies. STAND representatives initially contacted us on the story of the Edwards family lawsuit.

They are the only women in the family to have to undergo this procedure. She said they suffered miscarriages, thyroid conditions, tumors, cysts, skin diseases, and asthma. Terry Dryer continues to suffer from repeated bouts of bladder cancer. Their website acts as an advocate for Lejeune veterans and dependents.

Congressional Action

 Congressional legislation was introduced this year in both the House (HR 4555, Janey Ensminger Act) and the Senate (S.3378) to provide health care coverage to both Camp Lejeune veterans and dependents. Senator Akaka’s S.3378 bill would provide for a scientific advisory board to review environmental hazards on military bases and make recommendations to DOD and the VA.

S.3378 provides for medical health benefits to Camp Lejeune veterans and their dependents as well as the Naval Air Facility, Atsugi, Japan.

Major differences between the House and Senate bills, presenting formidable barriers to the passage of any compromise legislation. For example, HR 4555 provides for health coverage by the Department of Veterans Affairs while Senator Akaka’s bill would give both veterans and dependents access to the Defense Department’s TRICARE health insurance system.

For those injured by exposure to radiation or toxic chemicals, the latency in the onset of disease can take years after separation from the military. Even if a veteran can “connect the dots,” it may be virtually impossible to prove service connection or, at the very least, a costly effort to meet the “at least as likely as not” threshold required by the VA.

Senator Daniel Akaka’s S.3378, requires scientific evaluation of environmental exposure claims. Having independent scientists make the call on whether veterans and their dependents were exposed to environmental hazards and were injured makes good sense. However, like most bills, ‘the devil’ is in the details.

S.3378 is on the Senate’s Legislative Calendar. As of this date, there are no co-sponsors and there doesn’t seem to be a push to move it to the floor for a vote.

If environmental exposures are substantiated by scientists, veterans and their dependents would be eligible for government health care. Hold up on cashing any checks. The final decision would be made by DOD and the VA. A major hurdle is that DOD has historically been hostile to environmental hazard injury claims.

The actual award of benefits would be made by DOD and VA, provided they agree with the proposed Advisory Board’s recommendation.

The bill does not provide for a monthly compensation award, only government health care. Veterans with current disabilities linked to environmental exposures would still be entitled to file VA disability and compensation claims under Title 38. If the proposed advisory board rules against environmental hazard exposure at a particular military installation, any veterans filing a VA disability compensation claim would have an uphill fight and likely be rejected by the VA.

For many veterans and their families injured from contaminants and out of work, access to health care may be literally a life saver.

Even if S.3378 becomes law, hold up on putting together an individual claim; the bill’s focus is looking at potential environmental exposures at a military installation or an area within an installation.

Based on the 130 military bases on the National Priority List (EPA Superfund), there’s more than enough work for a group of independent scientists authorized by this bill.

The idea is that a group of independent scientists would provide a fairer approach to determining health care benefits or compensation then the current piecemeal system. At least that’s the theory and the stated hope of the Senator Akaka and the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Unfortunately, the bill limits the scientists to an information gathering role, leaving the DOD and VA to make the health benefit award decision. If you believe that DOD and the VA will make these decisions on the scientific merits only, you are more niave than me.

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