This month, attorneys working at Guantanamo Bay’s Camp Justice filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense (Seeger et al v. U.S. Department of Defense et al, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia, No. 17-00639), in which they allege that they have been exposed to dangerously high levels of carcinogens from working in contaminated areas. The four attorneys, who include Army Major Matthew Seeger and three civilian attorneys, represent Walid Bin Attash, a Yemeni man charged with helping to plot the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The attorneys’ complaint alleges that various environmental hazards at the Guantanamo Bay Camp Justice complex have been linked to nine cases of cancer since 2008 among individuals who worked at the camp, and that the U.S. Navy has not properly investigated these conditions. The nine individuals range between the ages of 35 and 52, and their diagnosed illnesses have included lymphoma, colon, brain, and appendix cancer. Camp Justice is located on the site of a former airfield, and includes temporary housing units, as well as offices where the attorneys both live and work while at the camp. This former airfield was at one point allegedly used to dispose of jet fuel.
The complaint alleges that the attorneys first approached authorities with complaints in July, 2015 and requested an investigation into whether conditions at Camp Justice had contributed to several cancer cases among employees who worked at the camp. The suit further alleges that the U.S. Navy conducted a flawed investigation of the alleged environmental hazards, failing to determine what kind of a risk they posed to personnel and further failing to determine appropriate measures to remedy the situation.
The Navy’s preliminary investigation included an industrial hygiene and habitability survey of Camp Justice’s buildings where personnel live and work. The investigation documented the presence of multiple environmental hazards, including poorly-maintained asbestos-containing floor tile, lead-based paint chips, air samples that tested positive for mercury and formaldehyde, and soil samples that tested positive for benzopryene. All of these substances have been found to be carcinogenic. The Navy’s report acknowledged that their environmental and historical investigations were limited, but nevertheless found that there was insufficient evidence to address potential exposures to carcinogens. With that, they deemed the property’s buildings to be habitable. Additionally, following a review of military health records, they concluded that the number and types of cancer cases did not meet the Center for Disease Control’s definition of a “cancer cluster” and therefore did not warrant a formal cancer cluster investigation. These and additional findings were detailed in a risk assessment report published in February, 2016, which ultimately found that the potential cancer risk cannot be determined and identified the need for further sampling in response to the carcinogens documented during the investigation.
While none of the Plaintiffs have been diagnosed with cancer at this time, they allege that they face an increased risk of developing cancer or other serious diseases, and suffer from emotional distress, upper respiratory symptoms and infections, migraine headaches, itching and burning eyes and skin, and a lack of support in their professional duties because team members refuse to travel to Guantanamo Bay due to the potential health risks.
The complaint alleges that when hearings are held at Camp Justice, attorneys and support staff, including plaintiffs, are required to travel to the camp for a week or more at a time, several times throughout the year. They further opine that as their client’s trial approaches, it will become necessary for them to spend weeks at a time at the camp. When these teams must travel to the camp, they receive orders from the Convening Authority, assigning them to specific housing, but the Navy controls housing decisions at the Naval Station and can reject the Convening Authority’s requests for certain housing. Since their complaint was filed in 2015, Plaintiffs have consistently requested alternative housing, but have not been permanently reassigned to different housing units.
Three of the nine cancer patients referred to in the complaint have died, including Navy Lieutenant Commander Bill Kuebler, who was 44 years old when he passed away from cancer in July, 2015, just a few days after plaintiffs’ original complaints were made to superiors. The complaint notes that the cancer cases have occurred among young, otherwise healthy individuals who have worked at Camp Justice. The attorneys who filed the complaint are seeking an injunction that would require the Defense Department to provide accommodations that would protect them from the risks, both known and unknown of living and working at the camp. They request proper testing of the conditions at the camp and that they, in the meantime, be moved to safer housing units.