VA continues to unfairly reject and mishandle thousands of Camp Lejeune veteran claims

For decades, the U.S. Army's negligent handling, storage and disposal of toxic substances have been the source of enduring health repercussions.

For decades, the U.S. military’s negligent handling, storage and disposal of toxic substances have been the source of enduring health repercussions. Without even knowing, countless troops, dependents and civilian contractors who lived, worked and served on contaminated bases across the U.S. were exposed to chemical hazards known to cause debilitating and life-threatening illnesses.

Even though the Department of Veterans Affairs has largely acknowledged the plethora of toxic contamination issues plaguing its facilities, many have called into question its ability to adequately address veterans’ concerns and needs. In cases such as North Carolina’s notorious Camp Lejeune, the VA’s convoluted bureaucracy and underprepared staff led to thousands of veterans’ claims being erroneously rejected.

Over 30 years of toxic exposure

Between 1953 and 1987, nearly one million service members and dependents were housed on Camp Lejeune’s premises during a time when the long-term effects of chemical exposure weren’t all that well understood. For over three decades, the base’s residents were unknowingly exposed to volatile organic compounds leaching from solvents, oil, degreasers and industrial chemicals used on and around the base.

Analysis of Camp Lejeune’s grounds in the early 1980s identified over 70 toxic contaminants in concentrations 240 to 3,400 times above adequate safety levels, including carcinogens like benzene, vinyl chloride, tetrachloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE). Exposure to the base’s toxins is linked with higher risks of cancer, organ damage, hormone disruption, adverse neurobehavioral effects, reproductive issues, congenital disabilities and even miscarriage.

By 1989, Camp Lejeune was listed as a Superfund site, with extensive cleanup efforts and ongoing periodic reviews allowing the base to remain operational. However, later testing uncovered high concentrations of per/polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the base’s soil.

Better known as “forever chemicals” thanks to their synthetically-durable structures that prevent natural decay, PFAS used to be the primary ingredients in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), a firefighting solution used by the military since the 70s. Despite their marginal benefits, prolonged exposure to PFAS has been associated with lower birth weights, decreased vaccine efficiency in children, thyroid issues, increased cholesterol and several cancers.

In 2016, the EPA established non-compulsory advisory guidelines for the main PFAS compounds (PFOA and PFOS), limiting acceptable concentrations to just 70 parts per billion (ppt). At Camp Lejeune, “forever chemicals” levels peaked at 179,348 ppt.

VA wrongly rejected most veteran claims

Even before PFAS registered as an issue, the years of unabated contamination incurred a heavy and lasting toll on veterans and their kin. In 2012, Congress passed legislation addressing Camp Lejeune victims’ health issues stemming from toxic exposure. The VA was tasked with elaborating guidelines outlining eligibility and hiring “subject matter experts” to evaluate claims.

However, an independent investigation brought to light glaring issues with some of the experts’ credentials who weren’t sufficiently qualified to review conditions linked to Camp Lejeune’s contamination. As a result, claim approvals plummeted nationwide from 25% to less than 5% by 2016. In the base’s home state of North Carolina, the VA rejected a whopping 82% of claims filed from 2011 to 2019.

In 2017, Congress and the VA established a list of eight diseases that would be recognized as presumptive conditions, yet veterans insisted that it doesn’t comprehensively cover the health hazards linked to the base’s contamination. Notably, diseases linked to PFAS exposure aren’t afforded presumptive status, meaning that veterans have to undergo the challenging process of demonstrating service connection before being granted disability compensation.

A report from the VA’s Inspector General released last year found that the department’s underprepared staff was responsible for inadequately processing 37% of claims filed from 2017 to 2021, totaling $13.8 million in underpaid benefits.

The Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022

In August 2022, the passing of the Honoring Our PACT Act (HOPA) provided Camp Lejeune victims with renewed access to improved medical benefits and compensation. By virtue of the bill, which incorporated Rep. Matthew Cartwright’s (D-Penn.) redrafted “Camp Lejeune Justice Act” proposal, former service members and their affected relatives could once again file toxic exposure claims in North Carolina, effectively bypassing the state’s statute of repose, which previously prevented such endeavors.

Additionally, more than 20 diseases are now recognized as presumptive conditions, and the burden of proof for patients was significantly lessened, enabling them to cite valid medical research proving a connection between their illness and Camp Lejeune’s contamination as sufficient evidence.

Notwithstanding its largely positive reception, experts have noted that several of the bill’s provisions should be amended. For one, Camp Lejeune victims are granted only a 2-year timeframe to file their claims since the bill became law, meaning that for many, the opportunity to do so ends in August 2024. Furthermore, PFAS-related illnesses like prostate and thyroid cancer remain unrecognized as presumptive conditions.

In spite of these setbacks, the Honoring Our PACT Act is the first major step towards mending decades of unintentional, yet long-lasting, harm. Moving forward, federal lawmakers should consider extending the bill’s restrictive claim filing timeline, establish the veteran’s PFAS registry per HOPA’s first draft, and expand the range of service-connected presumptive illnesses to account for forever chemicals’ enduring repercussions.

Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency made important strides toward regulating PFAS in drinking water, proposing maximum contaminant levels of only 4 ppt for PFOA and PFOS. However, the EPA’s updated health advisories from 2022 indicate that adequate concentrations should range even lower, between 0.004 and 0.02 ppt.

Jonathan Sharp currently serves as CFO at Environmental Litigation Group PC, a law firm from Birmingham, Alabama, that specializes in toxic exposure cases and helps individuals affected by hazardous substances on US military installations.

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