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From 1953 through 1987, an estimated 1 million people who passed through North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base were unknowingly exposed to chlorinated solvents and other contaminants — up to 280 times the safe level for humans.

During that time, miscarriages and stillbirths were rampant. Many children were born with birth defects such as cleft lip or palate, brain stem issues or malformed organs. Some died from leukemia.

People who lived or worked at the base have suffered and died from cardiac defects, kidney disease, liver cancer, bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, Parkinson’s disease and other ailments.

Many are still suffering today — and are still awaiting justice.

In 2022, President Biden signed into law the PACT Act (Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics), a part of which facilitates compensation for those who suffered at Camp Lejeune.

But the military continues to stonewall the process, leaving many — especially women who suffered miscarriages and stillbirths — out in the cold, according to an NBC News investigation published this week.

The human toll

Frank Bove, a senior epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told NBC that exposure to trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, vinyl chloride and benzene, which found their way from Camp Lejeune into drinking water supplies, did not need to be long-term.

The chemicals could cause harm after only “days or weeks” — that’s long enough to damage a developing fetus.

Jeri Kozobarich was 24 and pregnant when she arrived at the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps training facility in early 1969, she told NBC.

At a reception, she approached another pregnant woman and asked, “When are you due?” The woman answered, “My baby’s dead.”

Two months later, during a routine checkup, Kozobarich learned the baby girl in her womb was dead.

“It turned out all the wives in the squadron, they all had either birth defects or they lost their babies,” she said. “Everyone was afraid.”

This story was echoed by other women interviewed for the investigation. One woman, LaVeda Kendrix, had one stillbirth and nine miscarriages during her time at the base.

Ann Johnson’s daughter, Jacqueta, was born with a cleft lip, a cleft palate and brain stem issues. She couldn’t breathe or swallow on her own.

“She couldn’t cry out loud,” Johnson told NBC. “You could see her open her mouth, and you could see tears roll down her [one] eye, but she couldn’t make any noise.”

Jacqueta died seven weeks later on the car ride home.

“For 39 years, this has been at the back of my head: ‘Did I do something wrong?’” Johnson said.

Crystal Dickens worked in the base’s motor pool as a mechanic beginning in the late 1970’s. Dickens was pregnant with twins after suffering three miscarriages in 1979, when she was told, during her six-month checkup, there was only one heartbeat.

Marine veteran Jerry Ensminger learned of the contaminated water from a news report, finally receiving an answer to the mystery of why his daughter, Janey, died of leukemia in 2007 at age 9.

Beth Steimel Barger, who lived at Camp Lejeune during her teen years from 1976-1982, told The Defender she developed ovarian cancer at age 26. At 33 she had a hysterectomy. Her mother developed breast cancer and had a double mastectomy.

Later genetic testing found no history of these cancers in her family, Barger said.

Other family members developed various cancers. A nephew developed Spondyloarthritis, inflammatory arthritis affecting the spine, when he was 10. Her father and sister have tremors.

Grady Edward Walker told The Defender he was 14 when his family in 1970 moved to Camp Lejeune, where his stepdad was stationed. They stayed until 1981.

His stepdad, who suffered multiple melanomas, passed 10 years ago from lung cancer. Grady’s niece was born with a single kidney and other chronic health complications.

Children’s Health Defense President Mary Holland told The Defender:

“What happened at Camp Lejeune is terrible: Service members and their families were forced to drink and use toxic water for decades due to the military’s gross negligence. The Marine Corp. knew of the toxicity but covered it up, and the ones who suffered were the most vulnerable. Pregnant women miscarried and had stillbirths, repeatedly.”

Justice delayed and denied

Despite the plethora of similar stories from Camp Lejeune, cases surrounding stillbirths, miscarriages, infertility and birth defects have been particularly difficult to litigate, attorneys told NBC News.

Many of the medical records needed to prove the arguments would now be several decades old and are incomplete or unavailable.

Claimants must also prove it was contaminated water that caused the ailments. Given the high rate of stillbirths in the U.S. — 1 in 175 pregnancies — and the prevalence of birth defects — 1 in 33 babies — that may be a tall order.

Attorney Andrew Van Arsdale, whose law firm represents 9,500 camp Lejeune claimants, told NBC the process could go on for decades.

The Navy Judge Advocate General’s office told Van Arsdale’s firm they were specifically looking for severe disease cases.

“They are not even looking at this miscarriage issue right now, because I think it is a complicated issue,” he said.

“It’s like we’re invisible,” said Kendrix, now 65 years old.

“There is no record whatsoever of my child who passed away in the womb,” Dickens said.

Camp Lejeune lawsuits, numbering over 1,100, are expected to comprise one of the largest mass litigations in history. Payouts could exceed $20 billion.

In June, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) urged the four federal judges overseeing the cases in the Eastern District of North Carolina to speed up the process of consolidating the cases.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has been receiving claims for years for 15 of the illnesses and conditions related to the Camp Lejeune water contamination. But, according to Van Arsdale, progress has been slow. “They’re fighting us at every turn,” he said.

According to a 2022 report by the VA’s inspector general, the VA mishandled more than one-third of all disability claims related to Camp Lejeune water contamination, affecting more than 21,000 cases and resulting in a loss to veterans of nearly $14 million.

The majority of the denied claims were the result of the staff’s failure to request additional evidence of injury.

Responding to these issues, Congress passed the PACT Act. A section of that law, the “Camp Lejeune Justice Act,” allows individuals who were exposed to toxic water at Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987 to file a claim for compensation.

Since the PACT Act was signed, more than 90,000 administrative claims have been submitted to the Navy, but few have been resolved.

The PACT Act does not set a deadline for the resolution of claims, but allows for victims and families to sue in federal court if claims are not resolved after six months, according to Reuters.

Earlier this month, the Navy and DOJ announced a new fast-track program for injured veterans and family members.

However, those suffering injuries more than 35 years ago — before 1988 — are not eligible for compensation under the “elective option” published by the Navy.

The elective option does not cover cardiac birth defects, but does include an exception for “in utero” claims based on the mother’s “residential or occupational exposures for at least 30 days during the nine-month period before the claimant’s birth,” according to the Navy document.

Van Arsdale told NBC he thought the Navy’s offer was a “clever attempt” to “pick off desperate” victims who may not have much more time to live and who might therefore jump at a settlement now rather than wait for litigation.

According to an article Monday by Washington D.C. CBS affiliate WUSA9, claimants do not need a lawyer to file.

Under the PACT Act, the deadline to file a claim is Aug.10, 2024 for injuries diagnosed or treated before Aug. 10, 2022 for those who had exposure for not less than 30 days.

Holland told The Defender, “While Congress’ Camp Lejeune Justice Act is a step in the right direction, it won’t bring back the dead or restore the ill to robust health. This was an avoidable tragedy.”

A history of negligence

Leaders at Camp Lejeune knew as early as 1980 that their water was contaminated, according to court filings by DOJ attorneys.

Yet, nothing was done.

In 1982, Camp Lejeune’s water supplies were formally tested and found to be contaminated.

One of the owners of the lab that performed the tests, Mike Hargett, told NBC he personally met with one of Camp Lejeune’s leaders to discuss the findings, but said he was dismissed in less than five minutes.

The worst of Camp Lejeune’s drinking water wells remained open until 1985.

“We swam in it. We drank the water. We bathed in the water. We were totally exposed,” Dickens said.

It wasn’t until 2008 that former residents of the base were notified, under congressional edict, that they may have been exposed.

“To have not shut down the wells for so long, to have hidden information for 20 years, and now that the continued stonewalling is just despicable,” Barger told The Defender.

Retired Maj. Gen. Eugene Gray Payne told NBC leaders should have taken the warnings more seriously. “Someone dropped the ball badly,” he said.

Payne assumed leadership of Camp Lejeune in 2007.

During a 2010 congressional hearing, Payne said he and the base commandant had been told “over and over” that the water situation was “better than it was.”

Payne said the fear of backlash by those who had been negligent “would’ve been tremendous,” admitting that in a large bureaucracy like the Navy’s, such a cover-up is “a very real danger.”

Barger offered one possible explanation for the ongoing negligence. “I’m not making excuses,” she told The Defender, “But a contributing factor is that on these bases, the physicians are constantly changing, the commanding officer of the hospital is constantly changing, and in an age before computerized records, things can get lost.”

But, she agreed, the trail of lost babies should have been more than enough to spark an investigation years sooner.

Camp Lejeune’s contaminants

The contaminants at Camp Lejeune came from leaking underground storage tanks, waste disposal sites, industrial area spills and an off-base dry-cleaning firm.

Three of the bases’s eight water treatment facilities contained contaminants while serving mainside barracks and family housing at multiple locations.

A study published in Environmental Health in 2014 reported samples taken at Camp Lejeune between 1980-1985 primarily contained tetrachloroethylene (also known as perchloroethylene or PCE), trichloroethylene (TCE) and their breakdown products, trans-1,2-dichloroethyline and vinyl chloride.

Benzene was also found in the water but at officially safe concentrations.

The highest contamination level for TCE was detected at 1400 µg [micrograms]/L; for PCE it was 250 µg/L, and for vinyl chloride, 22 µg/L.

The current U.S. maximum contaminant levels for TCE, PCE are 5 µg/L, and for vinyl chloride, 2 µg/L.

TCE and PCE are commonly used as industrial degreasing solvents and are used in dry cleaning and in some refrigerants. PCE is used to remove oil from fabrics, as a carrier solvent, and as a fabric finish or water repellent. Both are known carcinogens.

TCE can smell sweet or be odorless, and its vapors can be absorbed directly through the skin. It breaks down slowly in water and soil, and quickly in air. According to the US. Environmental Protection Agency:

“TCE has the potential to affect the developing fetus, irritate the respiratory system and skin, and cause light-headedness, drowsiness, and headaches. Repeated exposure to TCE has been associated with effects in the liver, kidneys, immune system, and central nervous system.”

PCE breaks down slowly in soil, water and air, evaporates quickly from water, and can travel long distances by air. According to the CDC:

“Breathing high levels of tetrachloroethylene for a brief period may cause dizziness or drowsiness, headache, and incoordination; higher levels may cause unconsciousness and even death.

“Exposure for longer periods to low levels … may cause changes in mood, memory, attention, reaction time, and vision.

“Studies in animals … have shown to cause cancers of the liver, kidney, and blood systems, and changes in brain chemistry.”

The 2014 study compared health outcomes at Camp Lejeune to those at a military base without water contamination issues. Marines and Navy personnel at Camp Lejeune faced significantly increased hazard ratios for all cancers, for non-Hodgkin lymphoma and for multiple myeloma.

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), due to vinyl chloride exposure, had the highest mortality hazard ratio of all diseases in the study.