Virginia’s Langley-Eustis base shares toxic PFAS legacy similar to NC’s Camp Lejeune

Almost 90,000 Virginian veterans who served at Camp Lejeune may have been affected by the base’s toxins and “forever chemicals” are a lasting environmental hazard for thousands of veterans residing near Langley-Eustis in Hampton Roads

May 5, 2023 12:05 am

A view of Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, from a U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter, March 6, 2020. The helicopter departed from Felker Army Airfield, JBLE. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Sarah Dowe)

By Jonathan Sharp

For nearly a century, countless service members have been inadvertently placed in harm’s way due to the U.S. military’s negligent use and disposal of chemical hazards on or near its installations. In instances such as North Carolina’s infamous Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base, contamination occurred unabated for over three decades.

Between 1953 and 1987, nearly 1 million troops and their families were housed on Camp Lejeune’s premises. Throughout this period, they were unintentionally exposed to severe health hazards and carcinogens that leached into the base’s drinking water sources, including halogenated hydrocarbons, perchloroethylene, trichloroethylene, vinyl chloride, and benzene.

Although the base was deemed a Superfund site in 1989, later analysis revealed  the presence of vast amounts of per/polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). 

Also referred to as “forever chemicals” due to their strong synthetic structures that prevent natural decomposition, PFAS (in particular the variants PFOA and PFOS) were the primary ingredient in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), a type of firefighting solution used by the military since the 1970s for training purposes and battling difficult fuel fires. In Virginia, AFFF was employed for decades on air force bases like Langley and former military installations like Eustis.   

However, despite their formidable benefits, PFAS also represent an insidious and enduring toxic hazard; chronic exposure to PFAS is linked to lower birth weights, decreased vaccine response in children, higher cholesterol, thyroid issues and several cancers. The interim updated health advisories for PFOA and PFOS are 0.004 ppt and 0.02 ppt (parts per trillion), respectively, replacing the former advisories of 70 ppt set for both compounds in 2016. 

Around the same time “forever chemicals” were detected at Camp Lejeune in staggering amounts (179,348 ppt), similar testing was underway in the Old Dominion. Though Langley and Eustis were joined in 2010, the legacy use of AFFF on both bases led to widely differing outcomes. While PFAS amounts on Eustis’s premises topped out at 77,600 ppt, quantities at Langley were magnitudes higher, registering maximum concentrations of 2,225,000 ppt. 

Unlike exposure to Camp Lejeune’s toxins, which the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) connected  eight diseases to as presumptive conditions in 2017, illnesses resulting from PFAS exposure aren’t afforded the same status and are critically overlooked as genuine long-term threats. Moreover, even with significant legislative efforts to improve veterans’ access to health benefits, over a third of Camp Lejeune disability claims are wrongly rejected due to the VA’s convoluted bureaucracy and underprepared staff. 

87,571 Virginian veterans who served at Camp Lejeune may have been affected by the base’s toxins and yet, over 80% of the claims filed in the state from 2011 through 2019 were outright rejected. Additionally, PFAS’ persistence makes them a lasting environmental hazard for thousands of veterans residing in Langley-Eustis’ neighboring communities of Hampton and Newport News, where 19,227 and 19,771 former service members reside, respectively. This problem is only compounded by the local VA’s reluctance to share any information regarding its outreach efforts concerning “forever chemicals.”

PFAS, often used in water-resistant gear, also find their way into drinking water and human bodies. CasarsaGuru via Getty Images

The signing of the Honoring Our PACT Act in August 2022 promised to solve an extensive range of toxic exposure issues, providing affected veterans and relatives better access to disability benefits and compensation from the VA. Despite its largely positive reception, experts have noted that the bill warrants several amendments and improvements.

While former Camp Lejeune residents can once again file lawsuits seeking compensation for toxic exposure, they’re afforded only a brief two-year period after the bill’s adoption to initiate legal action, meaning the window of opportunity to do so effectively ends in August 2024. Furthermore, thousands of veterans whose claims were previously rejected will be required to repeat the grueling filing process all over again. 

Even though the PACT Act affords presumptive exposure status to 23 new illnesses, PFAS-related conditions like prostate and thyroid cancer aren’t included; as such, veterans will have to demonstrate their disease’s service connection. Moreover, the proposal to create a PFAS registry managed by the VA wasn’t adopted into the bill’s final form. 

Mending the PACT Act’s lack of provisions and coverage would allow Camp Lejeune victims to seek justice beyond the current restrictive timeframe, lessening the burdens caused by debilitating diseases. 

Moving forward, federal lawmakers should also consider expanding the list of presumptive conditions to account for the risks posed by “forever chemicals” and establish the PFAS registry proposed in the bill’s initial draft. Concurrently, the Department of Defense should speed up critical PFAS cleanup efforts mandated under the National Defense Authorization Act, as no such actions have started yet on bases with severe contamination, like Langley-Eustis.      

Jonathan Sharp is Chief Financial Officer at the Birmingham, Alabama-based Environmental Litigation Group, PC, a law firm specializing in toxic exposure cases.

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