The Veterans Affairs Department on Friday moved a step closer to granting presumptive status for eight diseases associated with contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
VA officials on Friday opened the public comments period required to finalize the proposed regulation, according to an interim ruling published in the Federal Register.
According to the announcement, the rule would designate the illnesses as service-connected and therefore eligible for disability compensation.
Former troops, reserve and National Guard members who served at Camp Lejeune for no fewer than 30 days between Aug. 1, 1953, and Dec. 31, 1987, could be eligible if they have one of the eight following conditions: kidney cancer, liver cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, adult leukemia, multiple myeloma, Parkinson's disease, aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes, or bladder cancer.
The days of service would not have to be consecutive, according to the announcement.
Nearly 1a million people -- including troops, family members and civilian employees -- were exposed to volatile organic chemicals and other cancer-causing agents in the base's drinking water system from the 1950s through the 1980s.
The contamination at the massive Marine Corps base was caused by the infiltration of runoff from dry cleaning companies, leaking under ground storage tanks and industrial spills near two water treatment facilities that supplied drinking water to the base's housing complexes and barracks.
The VA provides health care or reimbursement for related medical costs to affected veterans or family members with 15 illnesses known to be caused by chemical exposure, but it has not granted service connection for any conditions until now.
Interested parties have until Oct. 11 to weigh in on the proposed rule via www.regulations.gov. The comment period is shorter than the usual 60 days, the VA noted, because at least 30 veterans have terminal illnesses that would qualify for compensation but may not live to see the ruling enacted if the comment period was extended.
According to the proposed rule, claims received after the publication of the final rule and any pending claims that meet the criteria will be approved. Claimants who previously filed and were denied must file a new claim.
North Carolina’s senators, Republicans Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, described the announcement as a "relief to see movement" in the effort to bring justice to affected troops and family members.
"Now we begin the process of providing meaningful feedback to the VA about the details of the proposed program," Tillis said. "I hope that the comment period will be substantive but swift."