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By Courtney Kube
The Navy secretary denies all remaining civil claims of people exposed to contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, leaving approximately 4,500 claimants with claims of more than $ 963 billion in damages without cash payments.
In an exclusive interview with NBC News, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer defended the decision and said the law does not support the claims.
"There is no legal way for the Navy Department to pay the damages in these cases," Spencer said. "We are denying the claims to free everyone to take their own course of action."
Spencer acknowledged that this will be "tremendously difficult" for veterans and their families, who will have little chance of receiving a large monetary payment for their losses. Individuals have six months to appeal the decision.
The announcement triggered a sharp response from Jerry Ensminger, a Marine veteran who spent 11 years at Camp Lejeune starting in 1970.
"I'm angry," said Ensminger, 66, of North Carolina. "The federal government knows they are guilty, so they are using every available legal gym to exonerate themselves."
Ensminger's daughter, Janey, died of cancer at the age of nine in 1985. She said she was the only one of her four children that was conceived and taken while the family lived in Camp Lejeune.
Encouraged by Ensminger, Congress pbaded a bill in 2012 that forced the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide free medical care to veterans and their families exposed to contaminated water.
"It's a bit ironic that we have a part of our federal government that was created to protect our country and our way of life, and now we know that these people are the biggest polluter in our nation," said Ensminger.
It is believed to be one of the largest water pollution cases in the history of the United States. UU., There are approximately 4,500 claims for open damages against the Department of the Navy. The Navy could not provide the exact number of people involved since some claims were filed by groups, and new ones are still entering. A single claim sought $ 900 billion in damages.
According to numerous government studies, 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 Drinking water contaminated with dangerous chemicals. Two contaminated wells were closed in 1985, but sailors, marines, families and civilians at the base had already been exposed to pollutants for decades.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has estimated that up to 900,000 service members were potentially exposed to contaminated water. In 2017, the Obama administration agreed to provide disability benefits totaling more than $ 2 billion to veterans who had been exposed to contaminated drinking water while badigned to Camp Lejeune.
The rule covers veterans who were diagnosed with one of 15 diseases, including leukemia, liver cancer and Parkinson's disease.
Denial of claims will not affect medical care or disability benefits for thousands who receive treatment.
Speaking to NBC News, Spencer said his decision was based on the fact that three separate statutes make the government immune to claims.
The first is based on a North Carolina law that establishes a strict 10-year term for an injured party to file a civil lawsuit. The law applies even if the injured party is not aware of the exposure until after the 10-year period. Because the two wells at Camp Lejeune were closed in 1985, the deadline to submit the application was in the late 1990s.
The second argument for dismissing all of Camp Lejeune's claims is based on an exemption to the Federal Tort Claims Act, called the discretionary function, which protects the US government. UU Judgments in cases where negligence was not clearly established. In the case of Camp Lejeune, no one was instructed to cut off the water supply, so there is no clear case of negligence, according to Spencer.
The final argument is based on the Feres doctrine, a policy that prevents military members from suing the federal government for injuries sustained during their service.
Spencer said he was informed about the legal limitations of the claims as soon as he took office 17 months ago. "It became clear that we had to make a decision," he said. Otherwise, he added, the claimants remain "in limbo."
During a press conference on Thursday that announced the decision, Spencer said he could not answer why none of his predecessors made the decision. "I wanted to end this," he said. "Kicking him on the road did not provide any value."
Spencer added that claimants can "work with Congress" to see if they can add benefits in addition to health care and disability.
Throughout the years, social networks have provided an outlet for survivors and families to publish their cases. A Facebook page dedicated to the subject, called The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten, features stories of members of the service with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Parkinson's disease and various types of cancer, and includes dates of service at Camp Lejeune and the Air Station of the Marine Infantry. River. "I lived in Tarawa Terrace for several years as a child, and along with many health problems, I had Hodgkin's lymphoma, parathyroid adenomas, thyroid nodules and uterine tumors," said one post.
A senior defense official said the plaintiffs do not really have another legal recourse. "The truth is that there is still no smoking gun on causality," the official said. "There has been no direct evidence of the cause of these diseases to the exposure."
The United States Army has funded several studies to examine whether the chemicals caused the cancers and the diseases. Although studies have shown an badociation between any exposure and the development of certain diseases, they have not shown a direct causality. The United States has spent more than $ 45 million on these studies over the years and has one underway that is expected to end in 2022.
Spencer said he is open to more studies if science changes and shows a direct correlation between chemicals and these diseases. He said he made this decision so that the victims have a clear path to move forward.
"We care about all of our people as a family," he said. "We are doing what we can on the side of health."
Courtney Kube is a national and military security reporter for NBC News.
Rich Schapiro contributed