Obama lawyers seek end to Lejeune toxic-water case

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Obama administration attorneys have asked a federal appeals court to dismiss a lawsuit blaming contaminated tap water at a U.S. Marine Corps base in North Carolina for birth defects, childhood cancers and other illnesses.

The Department of Justice filed a request to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta on Monday. Earlier that day, the Supreme Court ruled in another case that a group of North Carolina homeowners could not sue a nearby electroplating business they blamed for contaminating their land because state law bars any lawsuit brought more than 10 years after the contamination occurred.

Government lawyers said the high-court ruling should end the Camp Lejeune lawsuit and “judgment should be entered for the United States.”

A Camp Lejeune spokeswoman did not respond to a message Wednesday seeking comment.

John Korzen, a Wake Forest University law professor representing Marine Corps families, countered the government’s argument with a filing in which he said court action was necessary because judges had not decided when the pollution at Camp Lejeune ended, marking the start of the 10-year deadline.

The court also needs to determine whether North Carolina law allows an exception to the 10-year limit for latent diseases that have a long development period within the body before they become evident, Korzen said. For example, many workers exposed to asbestos did not become aware of diseases caused by their exposure for many years, he said.

North Carolina has a “statute of repose” that ends a plaintiff’s right to seek damages to property more than 10 years after the last act of contamination occurred. Only Connecticut, Kansas, Oregon and Alabama have statutes that place a similar time limit on property lawsuits.

Government lawyers contend any exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune ended in 1987.

President Barack Obama in 2012 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 law was passed after years of pressure by former Marines who blamed the contamination for health problems. Their efforts were often met with strong resistance from the Marine Corps.

A long-anticipated study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in December reported a link between the tainted Camp Lejeune tap water and increased risk of serious birth defects and childhood cancers. The CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry warned it was based on a small sample size and could not prove specific individuals became ill from exposure to chemicals, which included toxins associated with degreasing solvents and gasoline.

Jerry Ensminger, a former Marine drill instructor who lost his 9-year-old daughter to leukemia in 1985, said Wednesday that he believes a trial would show the government has not fully taken responsibility for the negative health consequences of exposure to the contaminated tap water.

“They’re trying every legal maneuver and technicality that they have accessible to them to ensure that we don’t ever have our day in court,” Ensminger said. “They don’t want these cases to go to court because the merits of the case are not favorable to their side. They know that they are guilty.”

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Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio

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