For countless US veterans, the Army’s mismanagement and careless disposal of hazardous substances since the early years of the Cold War have been an enduring source of debilitating and fatal consequences. Notorious instances such as the pervasive contamination at Camp Lejeune, where toxins leached into groundwater for over 30 years, stand as a sobering testament to the egregious health risks unsuspecting troops and civilians were exposed to.
Despite its notoriety, the North Carolinian Marine Corps base wasn’t the only military installation where service members were unknowingly exposed to toxins, with similar issues extending even to remote facilities in Alaska.
What transpired at Camp Lejeune?
From 1953 to 1987, an estimated million troops, military dependents, and civilians who lived and worked on Camp Lejeune came into contact with volatile organic compounds that leached into groundwater from decaying oil, solvents, degreasers, and various industrial chemicals. Analysis of the base’s soil and water conducted in the early 1980s identified over 70 toxic hazards in volumes that exceeded safety levels by as much as 3,400 times, including carcinogens like perchloroethylene, trichloroethylene, benzene, and vinyl chloride.
The base’s protracted contamination issues led to its designation as a Superfund site in 1989, although it remained operational thanks to ongoing cleanup efforts and regular inspections mandated under CERCLA. In the late-to-mid 2010, a previously unaccounted-for class of chemical hazards was detected on Camp Lejeune’s grounds: per/polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
PFAS are a group of more than 12,000 synthetic compounds, commonly called “forever chemicals,” thanks to their durable molecular makeup, which prevents natural decomposition. The subtypes PFOA and PFOS used to be the primary ingredients in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), a fire-suppressant used by the armed forces since the 1970s for firefighter training and to put out difficult petrochemical fires.
Despite their efficiency as flame-retardants, PFAS’ unnatural resilience also distinguishes them as long-lasting threats to human health, with the CDC linking chronic exposure to higher risks of several cancers, thyroid and hormonal issues, increased cholesterol, impaired liver function, and reproductive toxicity.
In 2016, the EPA released non-regulatory advisory guidelines that limited safe PFOA and PFOS concentrations in drinking water to a mere 70 parts per trillion (ppt) – at Camp Lejeune, the highest combined detection of both compounds was 179,348 ppt.
The VA’s Complicated Bureaucracy
In 2012, Congress passed legislation facilitating former Camp Lejeune residents’ access to healthcare benefits and compensation for toxic exposure. Although the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was tasked with establishing eligibility guidelines, its dismally underprepared staff rejected claims en masse, with the rate of approvals dropping below 5% in 2016 – 78% of the claims filed in Alaska from 2011 to 2019 were dismissed by the VA.
Even though the Department extended presumptive service connection for 8 diseases associated with the base’s contamination in 2017, veterans and their supporters have complained about its limited scope. Notably, PFAS exposure and its complications aren’t considered presumptive conditions.
The VA’s conspicuous oversight of PFAS’ extensive health risks is even more problematic for veterans who served on bases for which bespoke legislation wasn’t adopted, yet AFFF was employed for decades. Around the same time “forever chemicals” were found in Camp Lejeune water samples, testing conducted at the former Galena Air Force Base uncovered even higher amounts of PFOA and PFOS – 257,710 ppt, or almost 1.5 times higher.
Since the VA doesn’t recognize PFAS-related diseases as presumptive of toxic exposure, veterans and relatives seeking compensation first have to undergo the tedious bureaucratic process of demonstrating their illness’ service connection. However, it’s not surprising that affected individuals would be dissuaded from considering such laborious legal undertakings when the Department’s Inspector General noted in a report released last year that claim review issues still persist for Camp Lejeune veterans, which supposedly carry more weight.
The PACT Act and the PFAS question
In August 2022, Congress adopted the bipartisan PACT Act to wide acclaim, regarded as the most significant development for veterans exposed to toxins in decades. The bill also incorporated the Camp Lejeune Justice Act proposal, which allows former base residents to file lawsuits for toxic exposure provided their claim was denied by the VA or wasn’t replied to after 6 months.
Despite its promising achievements, the PACT Act doesn’t address the long-term risks that ’emerging contaminants’ represent. While more than 20 new conditions were recognized as presumptive diseases, PFAS-related afflictions like prostate and thyroid cancer weren’t included. Likewise, an initially-coopted proposal that would’ve established a PFAS registry overseen by the VA was left out of the bill’s final draft.
However, an even more contentious aspect arising from the PACT Act is the seemingly preferential treatment of Camp Lejeune exposures. While the base’s former residents have the opportunity for legal recourse if their disability claims are dismissed or ignored, this option isn’t available for veterans who served on other installations where PFAS were detected way above the safety threshold.
Luckily, the discourse surrounding chemicals’ long-lasting implications has prompted significant regulatory actions over the past several years. Per the National Defense Authorization Act, vital cleanup projects will be funded to address PFAS contamination on the most affected military facilities, and the Department of Defense released new specifications for fluorine-free foams as it transitions away from AFFF.
In May 2023, Alaska adopted a unified bill that effectively ends the use of toxic AFFF state-wide starting next year, largely favored by the EPA’s recent regulatory proposals, which would limit acceptable PFAS concentrations in drinking water to no more than 4 ppt.
Moving forward, federal lawmakers should consider amending the PACT Act to also account for PFAS’ lasting ramifications, thus accomplishing the bill’s goal of comprehensively addressing service-connected toxic exposure risks. Alternatively, more attention could be afforded to legislative proposals such as the VETS PFAS Act, which has been on the books since 2018 yet continuously overlooked.
Jonathan Sharp | CFO of Environmental Litigation Group PC