The growing scandal that has engulfed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs overshadowed other actions by the Obama administration that further call into question its policies to protect the men and women who have served in the armed forces.
Behind the scenes, the U.S. Department of Justice is actively working to avoid compensating military families who were sickened by contaminated water at the U.S. Marines’ Camp Lejeune base in Jacksonville, N.C.
On June 9, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision that could prevent these families from getting the justice they deserve. In CTS Corp. v. Waldburger, the court ruled that federal law does not supplant a North Carolina time limit that may bar homeowners in the city of Asheville from filing claims against the company responsible for dumping pollutants in their backyards years earlier.
The court’s ruling was exactly what the U.S. Department of Justice wanted. In a brief and at an oral argument in the CTS case, the administration’s lawyers sided with the company, noting specifically that the case could affect the ongoing Camp Lejeune litigation. Then, just hours after the Supreme Court decided against the homeowners, the federal government, citing the opinion, moved quickly to try to have the claims of the Camp Lejeune victims dismissed.
The move undermines President Barack Obama’s pledge to stand with the veterans from Camp Lejeune, the site of one of the worst water contamination cases in U.S. history. The president made that promise in 2012 when he signed a bill guaranteeing federal health benefits to those affected by the contamination. That law, the Janey Ensminger Act, is named after a nine-year-old girl who lived on the base and died of leukemia.
She was hardly the only victim. The Camp Lejeune pollution has been linked to at least 84 cases of male breast cancer and thousands more diagnoses of rare cancers, leukemia, birth defects and other serious illnesses. What’s worse, senior military leaders knew about the contamination but kept it secret until two veterans, one of them Janey’s father, started asking hard questions.
Despite the administration’s shocking legal positioning, the Camp Lejeune veterans continue their fight for justice — an effort Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., is trying to bolster. Last week, Hagan introduced a bill that would allow victims of environmental contamination to sue polluters as Congress originally intended, even if a state law would otherwise block victims’ claims.
Gov. Pat McCrory, R-N.C., signed a similar bill into law last month. However, the state law only applies to cases involving groundwater contamination in North Carolina.
It is our government’s duty to ensure that Camp Lejeune families harmed by toxic pollution get the justice that they deserve. Sadly, it is now clear that the Obama administration decided to abandon that duty.
Heather White is the executive director of Environmental Working Group, a national environmental health research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.