This week, a New York Times article by author George Johnson entitled “A Cancer Cluster is Tough to Prove” takes a hard look at the current state of progress involving Camp Lejeune water contamination, as well as the frustrations faced by those exposed.
The struggles surrounding the pursuit of accountability in this issue have lasted decades. The excuses, misinformation and lack of action on the part of government and military agencies responsible, however, much resemble the various definitions of denial.
According to the dictionary, here are the following definitions for “denial”:
- An assertion that something said, believed, alleged, etc., is false.
- Refusal to believe a doctrine, theory, or the like.
- Disbelief in the existence or reality of a thing.
- Refusal to satisfy a claim, request, desire, etc., or the refusal of a person making it.
- Refusal to recognize or acknowledge; a disowning or disavowal
- Law – the refusal to acknowledge the validity of a claim, suit, or the like; a plea that denies allegations of fact in an adversary’s plea.
Any of these sound familiar when you think of what’s been happening with the response to Camp Lejeune toxic water contamination? Any of these sound familiar for instances at one of the other 150+ bases on the EPA Superfund site list?
Why are people upset? The answer is multifaceted. Victims were denied the right to know what was happening when it happened. They were also denied the choice to decide on whether or not to continue working on the base versus working somewhere else. They were denied the opportunity to get a transfer to another base or move their families and children off of the base. Those affected were denied the right to take proactive measures for their health. They were denied the knowledge to pursue accountability, justice, guidance, assistance and solutions. Their future life, liberty and pursuit of happiness was summarily infringed upon as a result.
All government agencies involved continue to deny and delay action on Camp Lejeune. The current VA denial rate for claims is over 96%. That means that just over 3% are approved. Do the math and you’ll see why this adds to frustrations.
Studies reveal that almost 1 million were potentially exposed to bad water at Camp Lejeune. Think about the number. To put it in perspective, think of that amount as a city population.
If this group were ranked as a city population in the 2013 Census, it would rank #10 out of all cities in the entire United States!
Yet only 225,000 or so have signed up on the USMC website regarding Lejeune water updates. Only 15,000 or so have actually filed VA claims. Out of those claims, just over 3% have been approved. In fact, at 3.6% approval rate, that means that approximately 550 claims have been approved.
Brad Flohr, Senior Advisor for Compensation Service, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recently mentioned in a CDC/ATSDR Camp Lejeune CAP meeting in January that the low amount of claims was “a good thing”, concluding that although so many signed up for information and updates, only a small number have had issues since there have been only a small amount of claims.
That’s what he said. We’re not kidding.
That explanation is a little too simplistic. When you have a million people potentially affected and only 225,000 sign up for updates and information, there’s a problem. It signals that people are 1) not hearing about it enough to take action, 2) hearing information that downplays the severity or urgency of the matter and therefore think that they do not need to worry about it, or 3) people are confused and not sure what to do. Point three would explain why out of 225,000 showing interest, only 15,000 have filed claims.
Out of 1 million potentially affected, only 550 claims have been approved. Why? Is it a lack of a sense of urgency of action to address the problem? Is it a lack of government effort to track down and inform all 1 million or so individuals impacted? Perhaps it’s the lack of thorough and adequate information being made available to all of those 1 million people on a repetitive, frequent basis. Or perhaps it is the numerous instances of misinformation or downplaying of this catastrophe in media interviews and stories that serves as a powerful deterrent.
Again, to be clear, a mere 550 out of 15,000 claims have been approved for help from the VA. Almost 30 years later, only 550 people have been given some form of VA health assistance out of potentially 1 million exposed.
That’s roughly 0.055% of the potential population exposed.
Think about that and let it sink in for a minute.
Now take all of this denial and frustration, mix it with the recent Atlanta Appeals Court ruling in October and you will begin to understand what is happening here. In short, the government has argued that Camp Lejeune water contamination victims did not file their claims before North Carolina’s 10-year “statute of repose” expired. To do so anytime after would render those claims moot and therefore summarily dismissed before litigation even begins. The statute of repose limitation squashes any effort for anyone to get justice.
Unlike the statute of limitations, which legal experts explain begins when an injury is first recognized, the clock for the statue of repose begins at the date of the final contamination. Even if victims remain unaware until decades later, this law still applies. Victims did gain a glimmer of hope from local NC legislators who tried to pass a quick fix to the statute of repose. Immediately, the DOJ, under the direction of the White House, pounced and appealed the validity of the law. The appeals court ruled that the law could not be applied retroactively, restoring the statute of repose as the final say legally.
As a quick refresher, have a look at this link for info on the ruling.
This delivered a setback blow to families seeking litigation. This move was appealed again by the end of 2014, only to once again be denied. For all intents and purposes, this means that anyone who fell ill after 1997, or for those that didn’t hear about the contamination and potential health impacts until after 1997, it’s too late. Even though the science has been updated in recent years to now reveal elevated risks of certain forms of cancer due to high levels of exposure to carcinogens, the new information comes too late.
Of course this raises a very interesting question. Is the date of last offense the day that Lejeune shut the wells down in 1987 (finally), or is it from the last date of failure to notify? For example, Lejeune took its time to do something about the wells, even though evidence shows that they were told something was wrong as early as 1981. What about residual soil vapor intrusions into various buildings well into the 2000s?
Fast forward to this new NY Times article. As it mentions, many diseases and health issues that present themselves as a result of exposure have latency periods that extend far beyond 10 years.
At the crux of the issue is this – How long do people really know or experience the impacts of contamination exposure in their health? As a personal aside, my father never knew of the contamination or potential linkage from contamination aboard Camp Lejeune from 1953-1987. He died knowing nothing about it. My mother heard about the problem for the first time on a random local evening newscast in late 2012. It was 2013 before I tracked down information through research to discover the true extent of what happened at the base. Further, the base did not begin notifying people at all until later in the ’90s, and have certainly not reached out to everyone. Are they passively keeping it quiet to keep the problem mitigated?
Finally, government officials continue to downplay the science, the research and the results. Often you’ll hear the phrases such as “findings are inconclusive” or there is nothing “statistically significant” in recent studies. If recent studies mean an outdated, incomplete and flawed NRC report from 2009, then so be it. If you’re looking at increased information about carcinogens and other science that has come to light about Lejeune since then, the only way you can continue to downplay this problem is if you’re a professional at putting your head in the sand.
Admittedly, there were some efforts to keep this in the media along the way. There were magazine articles here and there, a Dan Rather Reports video that aired, various interviews on the cable networks, etc. Eventually, enough attention was generated to lead to testimony on Capitol Hill. That resulted finally in the creation of The Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 (http://veterans.house.gov/HR1627). Once this was established, it garnered increased media attention for a time and more people became aware of what happened.
What little attention is gained in the media, however, can serve to be a double-edged sword. While those affected try to utilize the media to spotlight Lejeune, those that deny and delay (the VA, Dept. of Navy, Dept. of Defense, etc.) also work fiercely to spread their own versions of the information within media circles, stirring confusion and minimizing the science. Unfortunately, some news writers gloss over details, which adds to the problem. Details matter, as pointed out in a response to the editor of this recent NYT article by Dr. Richard Clapp:
“The [NYT] article on cancer clusters (Feb. 17) makes the inarguable point that they are typically tough to prove, and rightly notes elevated cancer deaths in Camp Lejeune veterans and civilians exposed to contaminated drinking water. However, the author trivializes the childhood leukemia studies in Woburn, MA and Toms River, NJ. He says “a wisp of a pattern emerged when the data was parsed just so.” In fact, examining childhood leukemia risk with pre-natal exposure to contaminated water in both Woburn and Toms River revealed more than a wisp of a pattern: in Woburn, the excess risk with pre-natal exposure was eight-fold and in Tom’s River, it was five-fold. The point of examining pre-natal exposures is not to parse the data “just so,” but rather to see whether risk was particularly elevated in this window of biological vulnerability; in the two examples cited by the Times author, it was. Important lessons can be learned from careful, community-level cancer cluster investigations. The CDC/ATSDR staff who conduct such difficult studies are to be commended for their efforts.”
The science and the details matter, and so does the media. Outreach is key to giving people a chance to know about their potential exposure and take action.
Thanks to the 2012 law, others began to revisit the health histories of relatives lost, discovering that their exposure to high risk contaminants could have been the true root cause of their illnesses and death. As a result, some of these people wanted to seek wrongful death claims, compensation or court litigation. Some wanted to send a message and set the record straight.
The frustrations are clear and cut deep. Here’s where people really get angry. Combine recent legal maneuvering in the court of appeals with the flawed oversight and budget power structure that puts ultimate power over research and claims in the hands of sister government agencies that obviously look the other way and the result is crystal clear. Claims will continue to sit unanswered for months or years. Inaction is the final strategy.
If there are those seeking litigation for deceased relatives or for themselves if ill or dying, time is passing by way too slowly. Given the current rate of denials with the VA, odds are that most all will get a denial. At that point, the next logical step for claimants would certainly be to pursue legal action in a court of law.
As of now, that’s pointless. The Atlanta Appeals court ruling took care of that. Upholding the NC statute of repose negates any ability for victims of Camp Lejeune contamination to be heard in court for their lost loved ones due to time passed, even if they only recently became aware of the offending activities by the base some 30 years ago.
Thank you, Department of “Justice”. Oh and thank you too, Mr. President.
You’ve signed into law an act that gives healthcare and claims assistance to vets one minute, then you turn around and quietly instruct your DOJ legal team to seek out a loophole that closes the door on any litigation from victims.
Well played, President Obama. Well played.
As a result, there are no hearings, no justice, no resolution, no accountability and no potential restitution losses suffered by victims and their families.
Unless something is done to increase awareness, accountability and claims approvals, there will be no justice. Unless legal roadblocks are removed, the government can sit back and do nothing. They know that victims cannot pursue further legal action. It’s the equivalent of driving into a legal cul-de-sac. Victims can go in, but there’s no reasonable or potential exit other than to turn around and leave empty-handed.
As Johnson states at the end of the article:
“Judging from the evidence, the former residents of Camp Lejeune may have a stronger argument than the people of Woburn and Toms River did, but only if their lawyers can find a way to get the case back into court.“
The current stalemate for Camp Lejeune victims is both the very antithesis of closure and the pinnacle of frustration.
Yes, Mr. Johnson, a cancer cluster certainly is tough to prove…especially when the government is both the policy maker and the culprit.
Here’s the link to the full NYT story text.