(Tribune News Service) — Fifty-one plaintiffs who contend they were exposed to toxic chemicals at the former George Air Force Base and later suffered an array of medical problems, from cancer and heart disease to miscarriages and infertility, have lost their bid to sue the government.
On Aug. 18, U.S. District Court Judge Virginia A. Phillips dismissed a 2021 negligence suit filed by the plaintiffs, who lived on or near the former base in Victorville, ruling the federal government has “sovereign immunity” and cannot be sued unless it waives that immunity.
The Federal Tort Claims Act, enacted in 1946, provides a legal means to compensate individuals who have suffered personal injury, death, property loss or damage caused by negligence, wrongful act or omission of federal workers acting within the scope of their employment.
It isn’t surprising that Phillips’ dismissed the suit, given the high bar for a federal claim, Paul Starita, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in an email.
“The court’s order demonstrates how difficult it is to get justice on behalf of military families who have suffered harm from toxic contamination while living on a military installation,” he added.
Attorneys for the government did not respond to a request for comment.
5 decades of toxic exposure
From at least 1941 through 1992, Air Force members, their families and others living in and around George, situated on 5,347 acres, were exposed to soil, water and air contaminants, according to the lawsuit.
The Environmental Protection Agency designated George as a Superfund site in 1990. Two years later, the base was decommissioned by the government.
Lurking in the water supply and soil beneath the former base are 33 hazardous chemicals, including plumes of spent jet fuel and trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent used to degrease planes. The chemical can harm the nervous system, kidneys, heart and other vital organs, and, according to the EPA, has been found to cause cancer in mice and rats.
Efforts by the EPA to clean up contamination at George began in 1996 and will continue until at least 2077.
Frank Vera, a 69-year-old former airman at George, said he has been diagnosed with radiation exposure and suffers from seizures, emphysema, chronic pain syndrome and a litany of other maladies.
“We enlisted or were commissioned in the military to protect the United States,” Vera said in a statement. “We agreed to sacrifice our bodies or lay down our lives, if necessary, to protect the country we loved. We did not agree to be needlessly poisoned by the country we swore to protect, and we certainly did not agree to the poisoning of our spouses and children.”
Vera manages a Facebook group and website aimed at exposing George’s environmental problems, and has been contacted by more than 1,500 people who claim they, too, became sick from working and living on the base.
Among those who have contacted Vera, contending their health was harmed at the base, are at least 300 women who reported having miscarriages.
Additionally, women have told the Southern California News Group that Air Force doctors urged them not to get pregnant while living at George, leading some of them to believe they and their fetuses could be in danger from toxic exposure at the base.
The lawsuit alleges civilian residents at George were exposed to toxic, hazardous, and radioactive substances from golf course water sprinklers, a hospital incinerator, lead-based paints, solvents, fuel, components, radioactive material, and fine particulate tracked into homes and a school on the base.
“Defendant has never notified or otherwise communicated to plaintiffs the risks associated with or the fact of exposure to toxic, hazardous, and radioactive substances present at former George Air Force Base,” the suit says.
Plaintiffs to seek legislation
The plaintiffs have decided not to appeal Phillips’ ruling, deciding instead to focus on securing legislation similar to the Camp Lejeune Justice Act signed into law last month by President Joe Biden.
The new legislation enables military veterans who were exposed to tainted water at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina, to file civil lawsuits against the federal government. It also prevents the government from asserting immunity against litigation.
“We believe there is interest in working toward similar legislation,” Starita said. “Frankly, given the many immunities and defenses that the United States enjoys, we see no other viable way to get justice for our clients.”
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