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Key study of Camp Lejeune cancers in limbo as cases go to court

The delay could affect more than 1,100 lawsuits seeking compensation for deaths and illnesses

Comedian and activist Jon Stewart, right, speaks to Marine Corps veteran Jerry Ensminger on Aug. 10, 2022, during a signing ceremony for the PACT Act, which allows those harmed at Camp Lejeune to file damage claims.
Comedian and activist Jon Stewart, right, speaks to Marine Corps veteran Jerry Ensminger on Aug. 10, 2022, during a signing ceremony for the PACT Act, which allows those harmed at Camp Lejeune to file damage claims. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

With the first cases claiming harm from Camp Lejeune contamination to be heard soon in court, the public has yet to see the results of a landmark study of cancers among thousands exposed to tainted water at the Marine Corps base from the 1950s to the 1980s, despite the study wrapping up months ago.

The comprehensive “cancer incidence study” launched in 2015 by an agency within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was cleared by an outside peer review in April, but it has not yet been made public. The delay could affect more than 1,100 lawsuits seeking compensation for deaths and illnesses that are moving toward action in federal court in North Carolina, as Congress intended in a law enacted in August 2022.

Another 117,000 damage claims are pending at the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Office, the first step Camp Lejeune victims must take before going to federal court. The Justice Department said in a court filing last month that the claims ask for a total of $3.3 trillion in damages.

To be successful with claims, plaintiffs must prove they spent more than a month at Camp Lejeune when the water was contaminated between 1953 and 1987 and show they were affected by any of varied illnesses linked to the pollution, including kidney, liver and bladder cancer, leukemia and Parkinson’s disease.

However, some diseases, including breast cancer and multiple myeloma, are not as strongly connected by studies to the contaminants found at the Marine base. That’s one reason the CDC spent more than seven years tracking cancer cases among those who had lived at the base by examining cancer registries in all U.S. states and territories — an unprecedented effort, given that there has never been a thorough national cancer registry.

That study remains under wraps at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an agency within the CDC that was set up to study health impacts from toxic waste sites designated under the federal Superfund law. Camp Lejeune was listed as a Superfund site in 1989.

“Unfortunately if they’re successful in slow-rolling this report, it will be the obituary for a lot of these people … as far as their cases go,” said Jerry Ensminger, a Marine Corps veteran who has been leading efforts to seek damages from the Defense Department since the 1990s. “Their cases would die, because their cases would go to court without that key scientific evidence, and that’s bullshit.”

“The studies are in the beginning phase of the external peer review process,” a CDC spokesperson said via email, without elaborating further.

The litigation is the result of the 2022 law known as the PACT Act, which provides compensation for servicemembers exposed to toxic air from burn pits used by the military overseas, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. The law included provisions allowing those harmed at Camp Lejeune, where the water contained a host of contaminants for decades, to file damage claims with the Navy and, if those were not resolved after six months, to file lawsuits in federal court in North Carolina.

As claims piled up, in September the DOJ and the Navy offered settlements to those who wanted to avoid a potentially lengthy process for litigating cases in court. Under the “elective option,” those who contracted any of five “Tier 1” diseases — kidney cancer, liver cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia or bladder cancer — are eligible for $150,000 if they spent less than a year at Camp Lejeune between 1953, when the wells were installed, and 1987, two years after the contaminated wells were shut down; $300,000 if they were at the base between one and five years; and $450,000 if they were there for more than five years.

Those with “Tier 2” diseases — multiple myeloma, Parkinson’s disease, kidney disease or end-stage renal disease, and systemic sclerosis or scleroderma — would be entitled to $100,000, $250,000 or $400,000, again depending on the time spent at the base.

In addition, the government will pay relatives another $100,000 in cases of premature death from the diseases.

Court hearings early in 2024

The Justice Department and attorneys for the plaintiffs in the more than 1,100 lawsuits filed as of October are currently selecting about 100 “bellwether” cases that will be heard by the four U.S. District Court judges in North Carolina starting early next year, and the outcomes of those cases will be used to help decide similar lawsuits in the following months.

Attorneys for plaintiffs with Tier 1 diseases, and federal health officials themselves, say there is plenty of scientific evidence to support those claims. However, there are fewer studies showing links to Tier 2 diseases. The ATSDR describes those illnesses as having “equipoise,” or “health effects where the evidence is sufficient to conclude that a causal relationship is at least as likely as not, but not sufficient to conclude that a causal relationship exists.”

And there are other illnesses, including breast cancer, that don’t even meet the “equipoise” threshold because fewer studies link them to the contaminants found at Camp Lejeune, which included the solvents trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene, benzene and vinyl chloride, all of which are considered toxic.

All of that makes the cancer incidence study critical for victims of diseases ranked as Tier 2 or below. It was started in 2015, after a study published a year earlier comparing people living at Camp Lejeune to a similar population at Camp Pendleton in California, where the water was not polluted. The earlier study “revealed a much higher mortality rate for those at Camp Lejeune due to different types of cancer.”

In the cancer incidence study, scientists at the ATSDR compiled service records for military personnel who lived at both Camp Lejeune and Camp Pendleton between 1975 and 1985, because earlier records were not available. They then searched for cancer cases among those veterans using registries in all 50 states and the U.S. territories.

A panel of outside experts completed a peer review of the study in April, members of ATSDR’s Camp Lejeune Community Assistance Panel were told in May by the study’s chief scientist, Frank Bove. Ensminger, whose daughter Janey died of leukemia in 1985, nine years after she was conceived at Camp Lejeune, has been to every quarterly panel meeting for the past 14 years.

But that was the last that Ensminger and others on the panel heard about the study until the next meeting in August, when Ensminger asked about its status. Ensminger said he was told that a number of comments had been submitted to the agency after the initial peer review, and those were still being reviewed.

Ensminger is convinced the study is being blocked by the DOJ and the Navy “because this report is going to bring some cancers that currently are not equipoise or above up to that level. This is a groundbreaking report … I suspect that there’s been some shenanigans taking place down there,” he said, referring to CDC headquarters in Atlanta.

Spokesmen for both the Navy and the Justice Department said they could not comment on pending litigation.

Ensminger accused the ATSDR and its parent agency, the CDC, of acting as a “blocking agent” for the Justice Department.

“They are a government agency that was created to protect public health, and not to protect the government from being sued and not to protect the government in court,” he said.

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