Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer announced Thursday that the Department of the Navy will deny all remaining civil claims made by people who were exposed to contaminated drinking water at a major US Marine Corps base, a decision that will affect some 4,400 claimants.
The claims allege personal injury or wrongful death resulting from exposure to hazardous chemicals from the 1950s to the 1980s that were accidentally introduced into drinking wells located at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, a major base that houses thousands of US Marines, their families and support staff.
The Navy said that the amount of money requested by each claimant varied significantly but that the total amount claimed by all claimants was approximately $963 billion, including a single claim for $900 billion.
The contaminants, which included industrial chemicals that were used to clean equipment, solvents for weapons and some solvents found in fuels, have been linked to some types of cancer, birth defects and other health problems.
Spencer said that the decision to deny the claims was made in large part due to a court decision made in December 2016 by the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia that found that similar claims against the US government were not exempted from the principle of sovereign immunity, which restricts the type of law suits that can be brought against the government.
The court decision meant that the Department of the Navy “has no legal authority to pay these claims,” the Navy said in a statement.
The US Marine Corps falls under the Department of the Navy.
“This is a difficult decision to be very frank with you,” Spencer said while adding that it was the right decision because “kicking it down the road provided no value whatsoever.”
He noted that Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs have established mechanisms and provided funds to support those who resided or served in Camp Lejeune.
The decision “will have no impact on the benefits or programs administered” by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Spencer said.
“We do care for our people. We are providing them all the health care benefits and disability benefits available to them, in the neighborhood of $2 billion,” he added.
Spencer later said “this is not a happy outcome, but it is a fact that we had to decide on to move on.”