Supreme Court won't hear $750 million Fort Detrick contamination death lawsuit
By Cameron Dodd
May 25, 2018
Cancer survivor Louise Mason has waited years for an apology from the U.S. government for what she sees as its role in causing her, her family and other Frederick County residents to get ill and even die.
“It just breaks my heart that you can’t even get them to say, ‘We’re sorry,’” Mason said. “Maybe they didn’t realize what the effects were going to be, but I wanted a wrong to be right.”
Mason is among a class of plaintiffs seeking $750 million for harm and death caused by exposure to hazardous materials from Fort Detrick. The Supreme Court on Tuesday denied their request for review of lower courts’ decisions dismissing the case.
“The government can buy off anyone they want, and I think they were bought off,” Mason said. “There is enough evidence to prove the contamination.”
The 106 plaintiffs filed suit in 2015 alleging the government withheld information from people living and working near Fort Detrick and “recklessly and negligently” handled toxic chemicals, causing injury and death by exposure.
State of Maryland studies in 2011 and 2014 were unable to conclusively show people living around Fort Detrick that were diagnosed with cancer at higher rates than the rest of the state, according to previous reports in The Frederick News-Post.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, Army personnel at Fort Detrick disposed of hazardous waste from its biological weapons research and chemical programs at a site adjacent to residential neighborhoods.
Mason’s father served in the Army and worked as an engineer at Fort Detrick beginning in 1948. He worked in the installation’s chemical corps, according to Mason, and was always proud of the work he did there.
In 1968, Mason’s father stopped working after a doctor diagnosed him with emphysema. He died in 1971.
Mason, now 67, grew up on West Seventh Street. Her mother and aunt both died of cancer, and her brother died of an aneurysm. Mason was diagnosed with bladder cancer when she was in her 50s. She believes her family’s history of illnesses stems from contamination caused by Fort Detrick.
There were other effects, too. “It financially ruined me,” Mason said. “It changed my appearance.”
The government and Army have consistently denied wrongdoing. Lower federal courts have agreed with the government and Army’s motions to dismiss the case.
“Plaintiffs have never identified a violation of a statute, regulation, or policy in effect during the relevant time periods that required the Army to use, dispose of, or clean up the hazardous substances at issue in a particular way,” attorneys for the government wrote in a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals brief.
U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake dismissed the class-action suit in 2016 for lack of jurisdiction. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Blake’s decision in December 2017.
Fort Detrick is “committed to our current environmental restoration and remediation efforts in coordination with [the] Maryland Department of Environment and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” spokeswoman Lanessa Hill said of the recent Supreme Court decision.
Among the other plaintiffs in the case were family members of the late Kristen Renee White Hernandez and her mother, Debra Cross, Frederick residents who both died of cancer. Hernandez’s sister, Angela Pieper, represented her late sister’s estate and others whose deaths were “caused by toxic exposure on or emanating from” Fort Detrick, according to court documents. Hernandez’s brother Brandon White represented himself and others suffering fear of disease caused by toxic exposure.
Randy White, Hernandez’s father and Cross’ ex-husband, is also part of the suit. White, who now lives in Florida, founded the Kristen Renee Foundation on his daughter’s behalf.
“We’re extremely disappointed, to the place of actually being offended,” White said of the Supreme Court’s decision. “We believe that every man should have his day in court. ... We’ve not been able to present our side.”
White said he will continue to pursue judicial avenues on behalf of himself and those affected by the issue.
“It’s not just about one man, it’s literally thousands,” White said. “I’ve watched some of them die. I’ve watched their loved ones suffer.”
The Kristen Renee Foundation is seeking to put pressure on legislatures to change waste disposal laws, White said. They are working with actor Jim Caviezel on a film about Fort Detrick and Frederick residents.
Mason’s cancer has been in remission for seven years. She went through chemotherapy but refused to have her bladder removed. People call her “the miracle lady,” she said.
She is not sure what will happen next in court, but she thinks something should be done, she said.
“This is not just about the money,” Mason said. “They need to pay for what they did, but I want an apology.”
Follow Cameron Dodd on Twitter: @CameronFNP.