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Lawyers are lining up to participate in the Camp LeJeune water lawsuit claims

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

For roughly 30 years, beginning in the 1950s, service members at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., risked exposure to contaminated drinking water. This summer, President Biden signed a bill making it easier for people to sue the government for illnesses that came from it. But key details, like how the government will handle what could be one of the largest mass civil cases in history, remain muddy. But as Jay Price of member station WUNC reports, personal injury attorneys aren't waiting for clear directives.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: You might have seen it on TV or YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Attention, veterans, their families and civilian workers...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Listen up, Marines.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) If you spent time on base at Camp Lejeune...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Between 1953 and 1987...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) If you were exposed to the toxic water at Camp Lejeune...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) If you or a loved one developed non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, lung cancer, bladder, breast or kidney cancer or other serious health concerns...

PRICE: More than a million veterans, family members and civilian workers may have been exposed to dangerous chemicals that leaked into the ground from sources on and off the base. The hunt is on to find every one of those people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) You may be entitled to significant compensation...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Compensation...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Compensation...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Compensation...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Compensation...

PRICE: The law allows that compensation for a long list of illnesses if the person lived on base for at least 30 days between 1953 and 1987. Those who believe they qualify can initially file a form that's available online. It doesn't require an attorney, but with an estimated total payout of nearly $7 billion over the next decade, lawyers are lining up. Last week, Brian Amburgey’s VFW post in central Kentucky got some earnest visitors.

BRIAN AMBURGEY: Lawyers from Virginia passing out flowers and their cards.

PRICE: Amburgey was stationed at Camp Lejeune in 1984. He later developed a rare type of cancer that's been tied to the chemicals. Amburgey has been fighting for the law for several years, and he's sticking with the attorney he's had from the beginning. The VFW itself, meanwhile, is advising potential claimants to slow down and consult an accredited veteran service officer.

PAT MURRAY: The law just gives a very basic framework.

PRICE: Pat Murray is national legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

MURRAY: There's a lot of questions that we still have that need answers before we're 100% comfortable giving someone the recommendation to sign your name on the dotted line that may require money.

PRICE: His members have had a lot of questions.

MURRAY: They're being targeted with advertisements that are promising paydays. And they're asking, A, is this real? What does this mean for me? What does this mean for my claim?

PRICE: One veteran asked about an ad for a company that wanted $5,000 upfront and would reimburse only half if his claim was denied.

MURRAY: And we just don't want people throwing money down the drain with false hopes.

PRICE: Potential claimants only have until August of 2024 to file. But Murray says neither that nor the urgent-sounding ads are any reason to rush to sign an attorney. He says when the Navy fleshes out its plan for handling the cases, some key questions will be answered.

MURRAY: Now, we believe the regulations are going to get posted here in the next couple months. So we're not asking people to wait for two years. Obviously, we'll run out of time. But we are asking people to wait about a month.

PRICE: The Navy declined to answer questions about the settlements, including when it will start settling cases and how it will decide the amount of compensation for each claimant. It's also not clear how amenable the Navy will be to settling claims before they end up in court. Fast settlements could make the process less cumbersome. The Navy says about 5,000 claims have been filed already, and some plaintiffs' attorneys predict the eventual number could be in the hundreds of thousands.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) The drinking water you are exposed to contain carcinogens and may be responsible...

PRICE: Meanwhile, the onslaught of ads continues. Some even make false claims that veterans already are winning settlements under the new law. Remember Brian Amburgey, the Marine veteran in Kentucky? He was startled to see his own face staring back from one ad. The ad said he'd gotten a $35,000 settlement.

AMBURGEY: I didn't even get 35 cents.

PRICE: He didn't even get 35 cents or royalties for the use of his photo. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Durham, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.