Brit ex-soldiers could receive six-figure payouts over 'poisoned water' fears at US base

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Brit ex-soldiers could receive six-figure payouts over'poisoned water' fears at US base

Brit ex-soldiers could receive six-figure payouts over ‘poisoned water’ fears at US base (Image: GETTY)

Camp LeJeune, in North Carolina, remains an important training base for Royal Marines, Gurkhas and infantry soldiers. But between 1953 to 1987 it held a dark secret: the systematic contamination of its water supplies which contained toxins from 240 to 3400 times levels permitted by safety standards.

Royal Marines and British soldiers who served there, or who went there on extended training exercises, may have contracted a series of serious illnesses in later life.

These range from leukaemia, aplastic anaemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes to bladder, kidney, liver and lung cancers as well as Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and even Parkinson’s.

The contamination is said to have affected the water from two of the eight water treatment plants, where more than 70 chemicals and toxins were identified suggesting a range of factors at play.

Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North California

Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North California (Image: Wikipedia)

These include the presence of volatile organic compounds such as perchloroethylene, a dry cleaning solvent – thought to be from a nearby though off-base dry cleaners-  to on-base units using chemicals such as degreasers to clean military equipment, and leaks from underground fuel storage tanks.

Also found was benzene, said to be from an 800,000 gallon leak from the base’s fuel farm and strontium-90, an isotope known to cause leukaemia and other cancers which entered the water supply from a radioactive dump site near the camp’s rifle range.

Crucially, base commanders were initially informed of concerns in the 1970s, but failed to act on them, and even refused to pass on the contents of independent tests to state water authorities.

A document dated 1981 admitting the base was aware of benzene in its water supplies was subsequently uncovered by retired USMC master sergeant Jerry Ensminger, who had served half of his 24 year career at the base and whose own nine-year-old daughter, Janey. died of cancer in 1985.

In August of this year US President Joe Biden, responding to mounting pressure from over a million possible US claimants, signed the Camp LeJeune Justice Act of 2022, allowing military veterans to file civil lawsuits against the US Government for harm caused by at least thirty days of exposure (including in utero exposure) at Camp LeJeune between August 1, 1953 to December 31, 1987.

Such is the close bond between UK and US armed forces that more than 750 UK military and civilian Mod staff are permanently based in the US at any one time.

Camp LeJeune is no exception, and boasts at least one senior Royal Marine officer on permanent attachment.

The camp hosts an annual Intramural Rifle and Pistol Competition in which Royal Marines regularly compete and military exercises. 

These are sometimes with junior officers from both marine corps, or can be larger exercises either on the base itself. At other times the base is used as a landing pad before forces are deployed elsewhere.

Speaking last night Gen Julian Thompson, who commanded 3 Commando brigade during the Falklands War, said: “The Royal Marines have used Camp LeJeune since the Korean War. I went there myself.”

British lawyers last night said they expected hundreds if not thousands of UK military veterans and their families to come forward.

“The criteria is that a veteran spent at least 30 days at Camp LeJeune during that period but, interestingly, this doesn’t have to be consecutively,” said Simon Ellis, partner with Hugh James Solicitors, which has received awards for its representation of military veterans in a variety of matters.

“There is now a two year window in which those affected can file claims.

“While many have come forward in the US, the issue is fairly unknown here, in the UK, and we are already taking steps to speak to the Ministry of Defence  – which is not party to his case – and military charities.”

He added: “The concern now is the range of conditions such exposure is expected to have caused. It’s very Erin Brockovich-esque, in that we are talking about birth defects and the onset of serious illnesses, from kidney cancer, to leukaemia, bladder cancer and even Parkinson’s, caused through contaminated drinking water.

“The problem is that time spent at a US base more than 30 years ago might not be at the forefront of a veteran’s mind if they are diagnosed with a serious condition in later life, though there might well be a link.”

He said the US justice system allowed for very high punitive and compensatory damages, and that it was possible the US Government would try to settle the case before it went to court.

“The damages will be determined in the US, and I suspect we are looking at six figure payouts for the most seriously affected,” he said.

“These are life-shortening diseases and we anticipate that, sadly, a number of our clients will be represented by their estates because they have already passed away.”

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