SUPREME COURT

N.C. lawmakers bid to bolster Camp Lejeune cases in wake of ruling

The North Carolina Legislature may approve legislation as soon as today that would nullify a recent Supreme Court ruling's effect on lawsuits brought by Marines seeking damages for exposure to contaminated water while stationed at a U.S. base.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly is reacting to last week's ruling in CTS Corp. v. Waldburger. The high court held that North Carolina's 10-year limit on filing lawsuits barred Asheville residents' quest for damages and remediation of an electronics plant that closed in 1986 (Greenwire, June 9).

The ruling is likely to have a direct impact on litigation from dozens of former Marines and their families who were exposed to toxic groundwater at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in eastern North Carolina.

About a dozen lawsuits from the veterans against the Defense Department have been consolidated at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

The day the Supreme Court issued its ruling, the Obama administration sought to have the Lejeune cases dismissed (Greenwire, June 10).

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Republicans in North Carolina's Legislature, however, have moved quickly to bolster the Marines' case.

At issue in the Supreme Court case was whether North Carolina's 10-year "statute of repose" was pre-empted by the federal Superfund law, which would have given the landowners more time to file their case. In a 7-2 ruling, the high court said it didn't.

The ruling will likely also bar the Marines' lawsuits because most didn't develop latent diseases like cancer and file their lawsuits until years after the water contamination was discovered at the base in 1985.

But legislation that has been passed by the North Carolina House clarifies the state's statute of repose, essentially carving out an exemption for tort cases involving contaminated groundwater. The bill would apply to lawsuits pending at the time of enactment.

State Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican and a lawyer, said the Legislature was a "bit surprised" by the Supreme Court's decision.

He strongly implied that the high court misinterpreted North Carolina law and said the legislation seeks to remedy that analysis.

"Ultimately, what North Carolina law is and what it means, is a state Legislative function," McGrady said in a brief interview. "If there is in fact an ambiguity with respect to what the intent was with our statute of repose, we have now taken action to clarify what our intent was."

The state Senate is expected to take up the bill as soon as today.

McGrady said the bill was aimed directly at helping the Lejeune victims.

He added that he expects the bill to swiftly pass the Senate and be sent to Gov. Pat McCrory (R).

It is not clear whether the law will help the two dozen Asheville residents involved in the CTS case. McGrady indicated that the intent of the bill was to help the landowners.

The law also represents a political reversal of sorts. It puts the Republican-controlled Legislature, which has been sharply criticized by environmentalists for its pro-business, anti-regulatory policies, on the side of those harmed by groundwater contamination.

It also puts them squarely on the other side of the Lejeune cases from the Obama administration.

Up to 1 million Marines and their families were exposed to groundwater laced with carcinogens like benzene and trichloroethylene while stationed at the base from 1957 to 1987.

Government studies have revealed elevated cancer rates among those who were at the base, and some experts have called Camp Lejeune the worst water contamination event in U.S. history.

The pollution -- which came from a dry cleaning facility, a leaking fuel depot, and industrial area spills and other sources -- wasn't discovered until 1985.

Twitter: @GreenwireJeremy | Email: jjacobs@eenews.net

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