The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow last week to public health, victims' rights and institutional accountability with a ruling that could clear the way for greater contamination of the nation's natural resources. The court ruled that landowners in North Carolina had missed their deadline under state law to sue a company they say poisoned their drinking water. The ruling is also a setback for Marine veterans who are seeking similar claims against the federal government over contaminated water at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune. It is a reminder that Florida and other states must act to protect public health and the environment and not rely on federal backstops.
The decision came in a case against CTS Corp., an electronics manufacturer that operated a plant in Asheville from 1959 to 1985. The company sold the land in 1987, and the new owners later alleged that their water had been tainted by chemicals, including trichloroethylene, that can cause health problems from birth defects to cancers.
The landowners filed a lawsuit in 2011, two years after learning of the contamination. But that was 24 years after CTS sold the property, and North Carolina law bars lawsuits in these cases to no longer than 10 years after the contamination occurred. The Supreme Court's 7-2 opinion reversed the decision by a divided appeals court, which found a federal law allowing for pre-emption of the state timetable to be ambiguous.
Limiting damage claims to a 10-year window regardless of when victims learn of the environmental damage is an invitation for big institutional polluters to hide their tracks. It's not fair or even sensible, given how long it may take people to show signs they were harmed by chemical contamination. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was right in her dissent that the decision would give polluters an incentive to run out the clock rather than to clean up toxic contamination "before it can kill."
Though thousands of Marines and their families are pursuing claims about tainted water at Camp Lejeune in separate cases, Monday's ruling upholding the North Carolina law is a setback and a clarion call for the federal government to do right by these military families. Up to 1 million people, including about 20,000 from Florida, were exposed to cancer-causing chemicals in the base's water from 1953 to 1987. A study in February found that veterans of the camp in the 1970s and '80s died of cancer 10 percent more often than those at a Marine base with clean water. The high court hasn't helped, but the Obama administration still has a responsibility to care for these veterans. And states have an obligation to make a priority of protecting public health from toxic pollution.