A Supreme Court ruling Monday does not bode well for thousands of Marines and their relatives suing the federal government for years of exposure to toxic drinking water.
The court ruled, in a similar but unrelated case, that a group of homeowners in North Carolina can't sue a company that contaminated their drinking water decades ago because a state deadline has lapsed.
In a 7-2 decision, the justices said state law strictly bars any lawsuit brought more than 10 years after the contamination occurred — even if residents did not realize their water was polluted until years later.
The high court reversed a lower court ruling that said federal environmental laws should trump the state law.
The decision is a setback for the families of several thousand former North Carolina-based Marines suing the federal government in a separate case for exposing them to contaminated drinking water over several decades at Camp Lejeune. The government is relying on the same state law to avoid liability. That case is currently pending at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
"This effectively rolls back the environmental clock to the 19th century," said Mike Partain, 46, a Winter Haven insurance agent born at Camp Lejeune who survived a bout with a rare breast cancer he thinks is related.
"Now it is better for a corporation or government to conceal or hide pollution … for the amount of time in the statute, and then they get off scot-free," he said.
Monday's ruling involves property owners living on land where electronics manufacturer CTS Corp. used to make electronics equipment until it sold the property in 1987. It wasn't until 2009 that residents discovered their well water contained chemicals that can cause health problems including cancers, reproductive disorders and birth defects.
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.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.