A federal appeals court dealt the victims of contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune a setback Tuesday, ruling that a state law passed this year cannot retroactively validate their health claims against the U.S. government.
The decision filed by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals returns a lawsuit to a lower court.
Obama administration attorneys wanted the court to dismiss the lawsuit blaming the water for a variety of illnesses.
At issue was North Carolina's "statute of repose" that ends a plaintiff's right to seek damages more than 10 years after the last contamination. The plaintiffs argued that 10 years had already run out before victims learned of the contamination, and that many are just now learning of health effects or haven't been diagnosed with diseases linked to the water.
"This is a slap in my face," said Jerry Ensminger, in response to the decision. The former Marine drill instructor lost his 9-year-old daughter to leukemia in 1985. "This is blasphemy . . . This is what we served to protect? Really?"
Ensminger said the "statute of repose" was drafted by "misguided legislators" trying to protect the tobacco industry. He said the 10-year limit was set to reward polluters and corporations who get around government regulations. He said the only recourse now would be to appeal to Congress for legislative relief.
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., expressed disappointment at the court's decision.
"These men and women and their families have sacrificed on behalf of our nation, and it is unconscionable that the administration has tried to deny them justice after all they've been through," Hagan said in a written statement. Hagan said she would work with Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., on a bill they introduced "to ensure federal law takes precedent over the state statute so victims have another option to seek justice."
In 2012, President Barack Obama signed the Camp Lejeune Veterans and Family Act to provide medical care and screening for Marines and their families, but not civilians, exposed between 1957 and 1987. The law covers 15 diseases or conditions, including female infertility, miscarriage, leukemia and multiple myeloma, as well as bladder, breast, esophageal, kidney and lung cancers.
The measure was passed after years of pressure by former Marines who blamed the contamination for health problems. The Marine Corps resisted efforts to pass the measure.
Mike Partain, the son of a Camp Lejeune Marine, has male breast cancer that he blames on the water. He accused the Obama administration of duplicity, expressing concern for the environment while protecting government and big business from environmental wrongdoing.
"This ruling pretty much opens the door for our government and big business to strip away our rights to have a clean healthy environment," Partain said.
National writer Allen Breed reported from Raleigh
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