Toxic water affecting hundreds of thousands
JACKSONVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) - Veterans across the country are demanding answers after three decades worth of exposure to toxic water.
"You never thought anything about the water, water's water. You were raised you have to drink water every day,” said Retired Staff Sergeant Mike Larson.
Larson was 18 when he was stationed at Camp Lejeune in 1975.
He, along with more than one million others at the base, including both service members and civilians, were exposed to cancer-causing chemicals in one of the worst water contamination cases in U.S. history spanning more than three decades.
Larson, now in his 60's, has multiple sclerosis and his wife, who was born on the base, is slowly dying from pancreatic cancer.
"I’ve been married to my wife for 39 years; I’d hate to imagine her dying from the water at Camp Lejeune,” said Larson.
The Jacksonville man says he hasn't received a single disability benefit from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
"I’ve wrote letters, it don't matter, do we get help, we get letters in the mail,” said the retired Marine.
“We're trying to do what we can do, but we all know how that works."
He's one of the hundreds of thousands of people across the world who were exposed to drinking and bath water contaminated with dry cleaning chemicals, degreasers and other toxins.
He's registered his family's medical problems with the VA, but nothing ever happens.
Taking concerns to the VA
That's where Rory Minnis and his veterans’ legal services team at Yale Law School come into play.
“The VA is not equipped to handle these claims as it is, let alone handling them in a black box where nobody knows what's going on,” said Minnis.
The team filed an extensive Freedom Of Information Act request in November on behalf of three veterans groups seeking records from the VA about its Subject Matter Expert Program.
The anonymous panel of 30 makes the ultimate decision on veterans who claim their illnesses were caused by the toxic water.
"Credentials of the doctors that are involved in these so-called subject matter experts that are making these claims, the training they receive, procedures that they follow, the number of claims they've handled, the number of claims of each sort of illness they've handled, how often claims go to subject matter experts, basically we want to know everything about this process from beginning to end,” Minnis said about what his group is requesting.
The VA is given twenty days to respond to any FOIA request or 30 days if it seeks an extension.
But Minnis says they still haven’t heard back from VA officials, "We don't have an official response from the VA and their position, we understand that our claim is very large but that doesn't give them room to extend the statutory grant of the 30 days they have to work with."
Which is what many folks say is a problem.
Virginia veteran Ray Goff says he filed a FOIA request over three months ago.
“It’s out of control, who do you go to get this organization which was set up to take care of veterans,” said Goff.
Qualifying Health Conditions
Some of the toxic chemicals these folks were exposed to include the highly carcinogenic TCE, which was found to have contaminated the water by nearly 150 times the legal limit.
Ray Goff believes those numbers correlate to the prostate cancer he's currently fighting, which isn't acknowledged by the VA’s qualifying health conditions.
Minnis says the VA’s lack of transparency and constant 'foot dragging' has many folks believing their published list of nearly 15 possible health conditions due to the toxic water may have caused their illnesses.
“You say well now they're sending us a piece of paper saying the water is bad and you say well that's probably what did it,” said Larson.
For the nearly one million veterans, their families and civilian employees affected by the toxic water, the idea of these subject matter experts setting a precedent for future claims could become a major issue.
"This is a procedure the VA has spoken about as being the model for handling future toxic exposure claims,” said Minnis about this issue expanding far past just Camp Lejeune.
Larson and Goff say letters aren't enough and want to see more done.
"You can admit it all you want but you've got to do something about it once you admit it happened, you got to step up to the plate and say yes we know this happened let’s see what we can do that's the biggest thing, stand up,” said Larson.
If you have a similar story or concern about how your health was affected after being stationed and/or living at Camp Lejeune, contact Jacqueline Matter by e-mail.
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