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SCOTUS Case Pits Families Against Polluters, Justice Dept.

A case next week before the U.S. Supreme Court pits North Carolina citizens sickened by contaminated groundwater against polluters and the U.S Department of Justice.

Buncombe County, North Carolina residents who filed suit after finding their well water contaminated by chemicals from a CTS Corp. facility shuttered in 1986 will argue their case before the Supreme Court on April 23 (video from March 18). The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of 23 local citizens last year. CTS appealed.

At issue is whether the suit should be dismissed because of the lateness in filing the case. The pollution dates back decades. Community activist, Tate MacQueen, is among those leading the fight.

Because of the way North Carolina law is written, the Asheville residents may have no legal recourse. CTS shut down that plant and sold the property in 1987. A state statute cuts off a company's liability 10 years after its last contaminating act, meaning the deadline for filing claims came and went in 1997. MacQueen's heads-up letter arrived in 2008.

Later this month, the Supreme Court will consider whether a federal environmental law that sets a different clock -- one that starts ticking when a victim first learns of the contamination that likely caused his or her injury -- should override the state law and allow the Asheville landowners' claims to move forward. CTS Corp. v. Waldburger turns on obscure legal terminology, but its implications for corporate America are significant. Big names are watching the case, including the American Chemistry Council, the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Coatings Association -- and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Similar to the chemical pollution case that made Erin Brockovich famous, documents have turned up that indicate the EPA knew the groundwater at CTS was contaminated for decades before residents were told. Brockovich will be in Washington next week to rally outside the Supreme Court alongside retired Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger who served at Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base on the opposite end of the state from Asheville. Drinking water there was contaminated with some of the same kinds of chemicals as CTS, reports the Huffington Post.

An estimated 1 million Marines and their family members at the base were exposed to drinking water poisoned by the solvents trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE), as well as the fuel additive benzene, between 1953 and 1987. A government study published in February reported elevated risks of death from several types of cancer as well as Lou Gehrig's disease among these Marines. And the Marines are suing, too.

President Barack Obama signed the Janey Ensminger Act in 2012 (named for Ensminger's daughter who died of leukemia in 1985), to provide medical care for affected military families. Ironically, his Department of Justice is siding with CTS against Buncombe County residents. Stopping the CTS lawsuit may head off similar lawsuits against the Marine Corps. McClatchy reported in 2012 that "as many as 750,000 veterans and their families [were] exposed to drinking water that was poisoned with trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, benzene and vinyl chloride."

Tate MacQueen, a Democrat, is running for Congress this year in NC-10 against Republican incumbent, Congressman Patrick McHenry.

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