As many as a million people may have drunk, bathed or swum in the poisonous water at Camp LeJeune. Malafronte v. US is one of what are expected to be thousands of lawsuits that will ultimately be consolidated in the North Carolina court.
Malafronte joined the Marine Corps at 17 and lived on the base during much of his military service. Just like everyone else, he drank, washed in, and possibly swam in and cooked with the water. Long before his other diagnoses, he began to experience severe, debilitating headaches that cause him pain to this day.
He did regular 30-day stints of mess hall duty, which required him to clean with toxic water. As an ammunition technician, he regularly drank water from the “water buffalos” dispersed throughout the base. Just in the course of his regular duties, he was inevitably, but unknowingly, exposed to water contaminated with toxic chemicals including trichloroethylene (TCE), a degreasing solvent for metal equipment, perchloroethylene or tetrachloroethylene (PCE), a solvent primarily used in dry-cleaning operations, vinyl chloride, and benzene, among others.
Until 1987, Camp Lejeune’s family housing areas were served by three main water-distribution systems—Hadnot Point (beginning in 1942), Tarawa Terrace (beginning in 1952), and Holcomb Boulevard (beginning in June 1972). Those systems consisted of a collection of wells, a water treatment plant, and a distribution system. They each served a distinct area of the base.
Beginning in the mid-1950s, toxic chemicals from various sources, including unlined landfills, leaking storage tanks, and an off-base local dry-cleaning business, seeped into the soil and groundwater and contaminated many of the wells.
In the early 1980s, testing determined that the drinking water on the base was highly contaminated. In 1982, for example, the level of TCE was 280 times the current EPA maximum containment level for the chemical. This was in addition to contamination with PCEs and other poisonous chemicals.
Despite nearly ten years of accumulating scientific evidence, the Navy did not shut down the water systems until 1987. Two years later, the EPA named both Camp Lejeune and ABC One-Hour Cleaners “Superfund” sites under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980.
But that was a little late for many of those who had consumed the water.
Devastating health damage
Exposure to the kinds of chemicals that polluted the water at Camp LeJeune has been linked to:
- multiple myeloma;
- Hodgkins lymphoma;
- cancers of the kidney, liver, esophagus, cervix, breast (including male breast cancer), rectum, and mouth;
- Parkinson’s disease; and
- Preterm birth and low birthweight among babies whose mothers lived on the base during their pregnancies. (The local cemetery earned the grim nickname “Baby Heaven.”)
Recent changes in law have opened a brief window of opportunity for people who have been injured. The time to act is very limited, though.
Camp LeJeune Justice Act of 2022
Section 804 of the “Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act,” also known as the “Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022”, specifically addresses toxic exposure at Camp LeJeune. The law covers veterans like Victor Malafronte, surviving family members and others who lived or worked on the base between 1953 and 1987.
The law has several very specific requirements:
- It requires that claims must be presented to the relevant federal agency before a lawsuit can be filed. If the federal agency fails to make a final disposition of a claim within six months of its filing, the claimant may file an action in federal court;
- It makes clear that a plaintiff may obtain a financial recovery for a latent disease.
- A person who has been injured need only show that the link to toxic water is as likely as not; and
- It requires that the lawsuit must be filed before the later of August 2024 or a date that is 180 days after the claim is denied (or deemed denied) by a federal agency.