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McCrory signs toxic water suit bill

Posted June 20, 2014 3:09 p.m. EDT
Updated June 20, 2014 7:40 p.m. EDT

— Gov. Pat McCrory has signed into law a bill that could revive two major water contamination lawsuits in federal courts.

McCrory signed the measure Friday morning, accompanied by Reps. Chuck McGrady, R-Buncombe, and Nathan Ramsey, R-Buncombe, who represent the district where the CTS lawsuit is centered.

North Carolina's product liability law, written in 1979, strictly limits liability to 10 years from the last contaminating act, a time frame known as a "statute of repose" for civil claims. The new legislation, Senate Bill 574, clarifies that the law was never meant to apply to groundwater contamination. 

A group of Asheville residents has been pursuing a civil case against CTS Corp., an electronics manufacturer that closed its doors in 1987.

People who subsequently built homes on the CTS property didn't discover until 21 years later that their well water was contaminated with chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects and other illnesses. They filed suit in 2011.

Lower courts ruled that federal environmental law preempted the state's 10-year limit. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 9 that the state's statute supersedes the federal law, barring the plaintiffs from suing CTS.

That ruling also affects a suit against the federal government over contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune. Federal attorneys filed an amicus brief in the CTS suit, indicating they planned to use the state's 10-year limit to quash the Lejeune lawsuit.

Retired Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger has led the suit on behalf of thousands of Marines and their families who were exposed to toxins and radiation in drinking water at the base between 1957 and 1987. His 9-year-old daughter, Janie, died of a rare form of leukemia in 1985, when they lived at Camp Lejeune. 

The true extent of the contamination wasn't known until 2007. The lawsuit accuses the Navy and Marine Corps of covering up that information for decades.  

Ensminger told WRAL News that attorneys in both cases are filing motions to request that the U.S. Supreme Court send the case back to lower federal courts. The CTS case would go back to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, while the Lejeune case, which is multi-jurisdictional, would return to the court for the 11th U.S. Circuit.

At issue is a 30-day window between the court's ruling and its issuance of a written mandate. Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, said the written mandate is the key trigger date. The enactment of the new law allows plaintiffs in both the CTS and Lejeune cases about two weeks to take action to keep their suits alive. 

“This solution is a testament to our ability in state government to work together in a bipartisan manner to respond swiftly to citizens’ needs,” McCrory said in a statement. “I would like to thank the members of the General Assembly for taking quick action to address the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling.” 

Ensminger said he believes the case against the Navy and Marine Corps over the Camp Lejeune water will succeed on its merits, and he's looking forward to continuing his fight.

"That place is a nightmare," he said. "It still is."