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Veterans who served on Florida bases contaminated with “forever chemicals” struggle for VA benefits

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By Jonathan Sharp, Esq.

For over a century, the Army’s negligent use and disposal of hazardous substances irremediably impacted the lives of countless unsuspecting service members and civilians. At Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base in North Carolina, toxic contamination continued for over 30 years until the deplorable extent of the issue was uncovered.

About 1 million individuals resided on the North Carolinian base from 1953 to 1987. During this time, they came in contact with excessive amounts of volatile organic compounds that leached into drinking water sources, including carcinogenic hazards such as benzene, vinyl chloride, trichloroethylene, and perchloroethylene.

After testing conducted in 1982 found more than 70 toxic contaminants on Camp Lejeune’s premises, affected water wells were progressively closed down by 1987, and the base was designated as a Superfund site in 1989.

Despite repeated cleanup efforts per CERCLA legislation, ongoing site reviews identified another group of toxic hazards on Camp Lejeune’s grounds: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

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PFAS, or “forever chemicals” as they are more commonly known thanks to their durable chemical structure, are a class of over 12,000 synthetic compounds used in many commercial and industrial products. The subvariants PFOA and PFOS were the main ingredients in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), a type of flame suppressant designed to quell difficult fuel fires, which became a staple on military bases since the early 1970s.

However, AFFF ingredients’ formidable endurance also distinguishes them as long-lasting threats. PFAS don’t break down naturally and can easily contaminate underground aquifers thanks to their pronounced environmental mobility. According to the CDC, prolonged exposure to forever chemicals has been linked to increased cancer risks, thyroid and hormonal imbalances, kidney and liver deficiencies, and a host of reproductive issues.
In 2016, the EPA set non-regulatory advisory guidelines for PFOA and PFOS, reducing acceptable concentrations in drinking water to 70 parts per trillion (ppt). At Camp Lejeune, the combined levels of both compounds reached 179,348 ppt.

Even though Congress passed bespoke legislation addressing former Camp Lejeune residents’ toxic plight in 2012, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) underprepared staff was responsible for inadequately reviewing and rejecting thousands of claims, resulting in a dramatic drop in claim approvals nationally to slightly above 1% by 2016. Although 14,000 former Camp Lejeune veterans live in Florida, the VA rejected about 77% of the nearly 8,000 claims filed in the state from 2011 to 2019.

Hoping to remediate the issue, the VA recognized eight diseases as presumptive conditions connected to Camp Lejeune’s toxins in 2017, yet veterans noted that the list doesn’t come close to addressing the base’s extensive hazards.

Notably, the Department doesn’t recognize diseases resulting from PFAS exposure as presumptive conditions which would automatically qualify eligible individuals for benefits and compensation. Consequently, veterans seeking VA assistance must undergo the tedious bureaucratic process of demonstrating their PFAS-related diseases are undeniably service-connected.

Around the same time forever chemicals were uncovered at Camp Lejeune, testing conducted in Florida found that the legacy use of AFFF led to extensive PFAS contamination on multiple installations throughout the state, including Patrick Space Force Base (4,338,000 ppt), Cecil Field (988,600 ppt), and Eglin Air Force Base (552,2000 ppt).

The VA’s convoluted bureaucracy and dismissive stance on emerging contaminants unsurprisingly dissuade PFAS-affected veterans from seeking the benefits they should be entitled to, especially considering the Department’s continuous mishandling of Camp Lejeune claims, which presumably have a more robust legal standing.

In 2022, the bipartisan PACT Act was adopted with wide acclaim, addressing an extensive range of toxic exposure issues plaguing US veterans. The bill, which also incorporated the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, allows former residents of the North Carolina base to file toxic exposure lawsuits.
Despite the PACT Act’s promising improvements, the bill also contains several inconsistencies and omissions. While former Camp Lejeune can file lawsuits again, they can only do so until August 10, 2024, and only after the newly submitted claims are either rejected by the VA or remain unresolved for six months.

Though the bill extended presumptive service-connection for over 20 new diseases, PFAS-related conditions like thyroid or prostate cancer aren’t recognized as such. Furthermore, a stand-alone proposal that was initially coopted into the PACT and would’ve established a PFAS registry managed by the VA was left out of the bill’s final form.

To fulfill the PACT Act’s stated objectives to a more comprehensive degree, federal legislators should consider expediently amending the bill to remove the procedural obstacles impeding veterans’ access to vital benefits and compensation and increase the coverage for diseases stemming from long-lasting toxins like PFAS. Alternatively, policymakers could also lend their support to similarly-focused legislative proposals, such as the newly reintroduced VETS PFAS Act, which was first submitted back in 2018 yet never received the attention it warranted.

About the Author
Jonathan Sharp serves as Chief Financial Officer at the law offices of Environmental Litigation Group PC, a law firm from Birmingham, Alabama, that specializes in toxic exposure.

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