A detainee is escorted to a medium security facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
A detainee is escorted to a medium security facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Photo: Seaman David P. Coleman, U.S. Navy/DoD via Wikimedia Commons)

Lawyers defending a Guantanamo Bay detainee facing the death penalty sued the Department of Defense in a federal court Tuesday claiming they’re forced to live and work in facilities with high levels of cancer-causing toxins.

The plaintiffs, current and former U.S. JAG Corps lawyers and civilian attorneys, are defending a detainee who faces the death penalty in military legal proceedings at Guantanamo Bay’s Camp Justice. The Navy began investigating possible environmental hazards at Camp Justice in 2015 after a lawyer filed a complaint.

The Navy concluded the area was safe to live and work in, but attorneys behind Tuesday’s lawsuit called the report flawed.

“Our point in the lawsuit is they don’t have a basis for that conclusion,” said Dan Small, of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, who represents several plaintiffs. “They haven’t done an investigation that would allow them to reach that conclusion. So they don’t have a basis for requiring people to live and work at Camp Justice, when they know there are dangerous substances there, including carcinogens.”

The lawsuit is also being handled by Johanna Hickman, also of Cohen Milstein, and Venable’s Michael Davis and Margaret Fawal.

A spokesperson for the Defense Department said the agency does not comment on litigation.

The plaintiffs include Maj. Matthew Seeger, an active duty officer in the U.S. Army JAG Corps, Michael Schwartz, a civilian DOD attorney and former member of the U.S. Air Force JAG Corps, Cheryl Bormann, an attorney with her own private practice in Chicago under contract with the DOD, and Edwin Perry, a civilian DOD employee.

They are tasked with defending Walid bin Attash, who allegedly ran an al-Qaida camp that trained two of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers, and was involved in the bombing of the USS Cole, according to media reports and Defense Department documents.

In July 2015, a lawyer who worked at Camp Justice filed a complaint with DOD’s inspector general requesting an investigation into whether conditions there could be linked to seven different cancer diagnoses of former employees. Shortly after, The Miami Herald reported nine individuals who had worked there were diagnosed with cancer afterward. Three died in the 13 months before the complaint was filed. Most were between 30 and 40 years old.

Camp Justice is located on an old airfield last used in the 1970s. The Navy assigns housing for military and civilian lawyers, as well as support staff, when they’re working there. Though they can request to stay in hotels or town houses, those requests are not always granted, the complaint said, and they usually stay in trailers on site.

The Navy began a preliminary investigation into the environmental conditions at Camp Justice in August 2015. That investigation involved a historical review of documents and a walk-through of the facilities. The resulting report said there was not enough evidence to assess potential exposures to carcinogens, and recommended further environmental sampling. Still, it ultimately concluded the buildings and trailers were “habitable.”

In September 2015, the Navy brought in a consulting group to assess the indoor air quality in the facilities. According to the lawsuit, that assessment found broken floor tiles containing asbestos, paint chips assumed to contain lead, and humidity measurements that exceeded Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommendations, among other possible hazards.

The Navy conducted more sampling and assessments over the next few months, which found samples of mercury, formaldehyde and benzo(a)pyrene there. Additional sampling was conducted in April 2016, but the lawsuit alleges no further action has been taken since then, despite a promise from the Navy to issue a final report in the fall of 2016.

The plaintiffs argue that the investigations that have been done “applied inappropriate regulatory standards, and reached unsupported conclusions regarding the safety and habitability of Camp Justice.” They want the court to order a more thorough investigation into the conditions, and to block the Navy from assigning the plaintiffs to live or work at Camp Justice until it’s deemed safe.

The lawsuit adds that there are seven sets of hearings in the case the plaintiffs are working on at Camp Justice in 2017, meaning they’ll have to stay there for roughly 12 weeks. Once the trial starts, it will likely last several months.

“[The plaintiffs] are obligated — by the responsibilities of their jobs and the ethical duties of their profession — to continue living and working in facilities that pose documented and material threats to their health,” the lawsuit said. “Defendants have forced them to choose between protecting their health and defending their clients.”

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