VA proposes expansion of disability benefits to people contaminated at military base

historic photo of Marine Corps Camp Lejeune
Contaminated Water at Camp Lejeune

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced December 17 it is planning to expand disability benefits to veterans exposed to contaminated water over a 30-year period at Camp Lejeune, the North Carolina Marine Corps Base.

“The water at Camp Lejeune was a hidden hazard, and it is only years later that we know how dangerous it was,” VA Secretary Robert McDonald said in a news release.  “We thank (the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) for the thorough review that provided much of the evidence we needed to fully compensate Veterans who develop one of the conditions known to be related to exposure to the compounds in the drinking water.”

For decades, perchloroethylene, trichloroethylene, vinyl chloride, benzene and other petroleum contaminants from leaked storage tanks contaminated the water supply at the base.

In 2009, the ATSDR, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control, attributed the pollutants to a variety of public health threats, withdrawing a heavily criticized 1997 report that denied such a link.

Congress responded in 2012 by passing the Janey Ensminger Act, ordering the VA to provide benefits to veterans with one of 15 illnesses linked to the contamination.

The latest proposal will make it significantly easier for veterans to qualify by creating a presumption of eligibility if they have one of eight listed conditions:  kidney cancer, liver cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, scleroderma, Parkinson’s disease, aplastic Anemia/Myelodysplastic syndromes.

To be eligible under the program, veterans – as well as Reserve and National Guard personnel – must have been stationed at the base between August 1, 1953 and December 31, 1987. Further details will be provided in subsequent regulations.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who authored the 2012 bill, applauded the proposal.

“The VA has conceded that it will no longer deny disability benefits to Camp Lejeune victims based on ridiculous scientific claims,” Sen. Burr said in a news release. “This is victory for those who have long suffered as a result of the toxic exposure to chemicals while serving our country at Camp Lejeune.”