We must take care of Camp Lejeune’s betrayed

When Marines pledge to defend the nation, the Marine Corps makes a commitment to protect them and their families.

It’s a pact of trust embodied in a single motto: Semper Fidelis - “Always Faithful.”

But those words have lost their meaning for many whose trust was betrayed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C. For more than three decades, Marines, their families and civilian workers on base unwittingly drank and bathed in water polluted with gasoline, pesticides and other toxic chemicals believed responsible for devastating illnesses such as cancer, leukemia and birth defects. The Marine Corps and the Navy knew of the water contamination and kept the effects secret until two veterans started asking questions after their children died, one from leukemia when she was nine, the other from a congenital heart defect when he was three months old.

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Their search, eventually joined by others, uncovered what is considered one of the worst cases of drinking water contamination in U.S. history. Government studies have validated the link between the poisoned water and the illnesses of those exposed, estimated at 1 million. More than 80 men who lived or worked on the base have been diagnosed with breast cancer—the largest such disease cluster ever reported.

Due to the tireless efforts of retired Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger and other courageous men and women, in 2012 President Barack Obama signed the Janey Ensminger Act—named for Jerry’s daughter—into law. At the signing ceremony, Obama declared that the bill would “end…a decade-long struggle for those who serve at Camp Lejeune.” The bill acknowledged that the Marines were wronged by leaders who had sworn to protect them, and it offered health benefits to some of the victims.

But now—less than two years later—the Obama administration is seeking to block some claims of those injured by the poisoned water. 

On April 23, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in CTS Corporation v. Waldburger, a landmark case that hinges on whether North Carolina’s statute of repose can void the injury claims of residents harmed by the dumping of hazardous waste in Asheville, N.C. Rather than defend these victims, the U.S. Department of Justice has sided with CTS —a known polluter—specifically noting the government’s interest in applying the statute’s 10-year limit to claims of Camp Lejeune veterans and their families.

A ruling in favor of the appellant CTS would establish a dangerous precedent that could bar not only Camp Lejeune’s veterans from making claims under federal law but countless others harmed by toxic pollution at Superfund sites across the country.

This is a slap in the face to not only the victims of Camp Lejeune but to all who serve our nation. It’s preposterous to suggest that the Marines and their families should have sought justice before they even knew they had been poisoned, during a period when their own leaders were lying to them about the water contamination.

It’s time for the U.S. government to finally live up to its commitment to take care of those betrayed at Camp Lejeune.

A rally for Camp Lejeune veterans and their families will take place at 9:00 a.m. ET on Wed., April 23, 2014 at the Upper Senate Park in Washington, D.C.

White is executive director of the Environmental Working Group. Canterbury is director of Public Policy for the Project On Government Oversight.