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Camp Lejeune Marine vets, families still wait for promised settlements over possible toxic water exposure

Vets still wait for toxic water settlements
Camp Lejeune Marine vets still wait for promised settlements over possible toxic water exposure 05:55

Nearly 100,000 claims have been filed with the Navy over potential exposure to toxic water at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina. But a year after key legislation was signed by President Biden, a CBS News investigation found the Navy has only begun processing fewer than a fifth of the almost 93,000 claims, and no settlements have been paid. 

"The reality is we're a year out from the passage of the bill and not one claim has been settled and not one offer for settlement has been made," Mike Partain, a male breast cancer survivor who was born at Camp Lejeune, told CBS News. 

"I mean, this is not what the president and Congress both intended when they passed the bill," he said.

After decades of delay, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, signed a year ago this week, was supposed to streamline the compensation process for possible victims of toxic water exposure. The U.S. government acknowledges that from 1953 to 1987, nearly 1 million veterans and civilians were potentially exposed to dangerous chemicals in the drinking water at the coastal North Carolina base. In some cases, levels of toxins were 400 times what safety standards allow.

Activists and lawmakers have credited CBS News' Emmy-nominated investigative series "Decades of Exposure" with the passing of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act.

Partain says his suffering – part of an unusual cluster of male breast cancer cases — dates back to Jan. 30, 1968, the day he was born on the sprawling North Carolina base. 

Reflecting on a picture of his mother, Lisette Partain, holding him in the base hospital, Partain said, "That's supposed to be the happiest day of my life. My mom's holding me the day I was born."

But when the 55-year-old drew CBS News' attention to one of his first bottles of powdered baby formula in the photo's lower left corner, Partain was overcome.

"All made with contaminated water that was provided to us by the Marine Corps," Partain said.  "I mean, it's haunting because you look at that and I'm in my mom's arms, supposed to be the safest place in the world, and it wasn't."

Partain's mother still remembers how he suffered unexplained cramps after feeding as a baby. "He was crying," she said. "It was not a normal cry. It was a hurt cry."

After chronic health problems as a child, Partain was diagnosed with male breast cancer at the age of 39. Asked how it changed his life, Partain said it "destroyed" his life and "It's affected my family deeply."

A government study suggests there are "possible associations between exposure to chemicals at Camp Lejeune and male breast cancer" and exposure could "accelerate the onset of male breast cancer."

Partain said so many men came forward they made a calendar to help raise awareness, but not everyone is alive today. 

"There's over 130 men that I know of that have the single commonality of exposure to the contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune and male breast cancer," Partain said.

With no settlement from the Navy for its Marine Corps veterans, Partain and about 1,100 other potential victims sued the U.S. government in North Carolina.  

The Camp Lejeune Justice Act does establish several possible defenses to liability. Justice Department lawyers responded in some cases, including the one filed by Partain, with a series of potential defenses, including one that angered him.  

It read, "To the extent that the evidence shows that Plaintiff voluntarily assumed the risks of the occasion, any recovery is barred by Plaintiff's assumption of risk."

"That's ridiculous. It's — it's angering to me," Partain responded. "I mean, I couldn't even speak. I — I couldn't even read. How could I assume the risk for being born to something that they created?"

That is a delay tactic, according to environmental advocate Erin Brockovich, who has been working with the Camp Lejeune families since 2007.

"Very classic behavior that I've seen in the law in every single environmental case, uh, deny, deny, deny, deny," Brockovich said.

CBS News began engagement with the Justice Department and Navy in mid-July, first offering an on-camera interview, then written questions. A Justice Department spokesperson declined the on-camera interview. Given the pending litigation, the spokesperson provided a statement which is here in full:

"Alongside our partners at the Department of Navy, we are working to develop a framework that will allow for early resolution of Camp Lejeune Justice Act claims. This framework will offer claimants a voluntary option to resolve their claims efficiently if they choose to take advantage of it.  The framework will provide an alternative to the normal administrative claims process or litigation so that those impacted can quickly receive relief."

The Navy also declined an on-camera interview. The Navy did provide regular, updated data on the claims filed and their status, as well as a statement, here in full:

"The Department of the Navy (DON) remains committed to addressing the claims of our Service Members, civilian employees, their families, and others who may have been harmed by exposure to contaminated water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. Over 80,000 claims have been filed under the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 (CLJA), and the Navy has initiated processing of more than 17,000 claims. We are pursuing information technology solutions to improve claims processing, and a new unit with a projected staff of over 100 claims professionals was established within the Navy's Office of the Judge Advocate General to focus solely on adjudicating CLJA claims. The Department of Justice and the Department of Navy are working to develop an early-resolution framework for the CIJA claims. This framework will supplement other mechanisms for resolving claims currently available through the normal administrative claims process or litigation and will provide a voluntary, expedited option for those interested. Our aim is that this framework will be finalized soon so that those impacted can quickly receive relief."

Asked if the claims and lawsuits against the U.S. government are a money grab by the Lejeune families, Partain said, "No. I mean, how could it be a money grab? I would never want any amount of money to go through what I've went through." 

Fifty-five years since his Marine Corps father took the photo at the Camp Lejeune maternity ward, Partain and his mother Lisette Partain remain haunted.

Asked how she felt about the picture, now that she knows the water was potentially toxic, Lisette Partain said it made her feel guilty, as well as "mad and upset."

"The whole time she was pregnant with me, she was poisoning me, and even though it wasn't her fault, I could see that guilt in her and that hurt," Mike Partain said.

Earlier this summer, a group of Camp Lejeune widows protested outside the Justice Department over the months-long delays. Among them was Denise Cromwell, who told CBS News her late husband, Sgt Lamar Cromwell, was at the North Carolina base from 1982-1985. 

"We are standing down here with boots on the ground on their turf," Cromwell said. "And we touch downed here for a reason. We want [the Justice Department] to respect the deaths of our husbands."

Federal judges in North Carolina have recently selected a panel of lawyers to represent plaintiffs in what is shaping up to be one of the largest mass litigations in U.S. history.

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