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Navy in court over Pearl Harbor water contamination

The harm is disputed by the Defense Department, which describes health problems as temporary

Fuel pumps are seen at the Red Hill underground fuel storage facility in Honolulu.
Fuel pumps are seen at the Red Hill underground fuel storage facility in Honolulu. (Daniel Mayberry/U.S. Navy photo)

Not since the dark day at Pearl Harbor that drew America into World War II has there been so much trouble in paradise, as the U.S. naval base on the Hawaiian island of Oahu is sometimes described.

A gusher of jet fuel that leaked into the base’s drinking water in November 2021 led to a lawsuit that forced the Navy to admit it was negligent in maintaining the gigantic fuel tanks built into a mountain at the start of the war, in a depot known as the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.

Now the case, with more than 2,500 plaintiffs so far and about 5,000 more expected to join, is before a federal judge in a trial that started this week in Honolulu to determine the extent of the damages to those exposed to the contaminated water.

The plaintiffs — mostly civilians, along with a few hundred military personnel — say the effects were calamitous, with illnesses ranging from nausea and skin rashes to cysts and polyps, as well as serious health problems in their children. Some of the affected families say the impacts have been devastating for their finances and careers, and most say they no longer trust the Navy that has been an iconic presence at Pearl Harbor for more than a century.

“This is a case about a government that poisoned its people,” said Kristina Baehr, attorney for the victims and founder of Just Well Law based in Austin, Texas. “And I don’t use that word lightly. They knew the water was contaminated and let thousands of people get sick.”

After the Nov. 20, 2021, accident that caused about 19,000 gallons of jet fuel to spill into the water supply that serves about 93,000 people at Pearl Harbor, the Navy did not alert residents until many started reporting symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, migraines and lethargy during the long Thanksgiving weekend of Nov. 25-28, according to the lawsuit. Even then, the Navy waited until Dec. 2 — 12 days after the spill — to announce that petroleum products had been found in the water supplies, it said.

Comparisons are being drawn to the debacle at Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps base in North Carolina where the drinking water was contaminated for decades without any warnings to those exposed. The Defense Department is still fighting damage claims by thousands of former Marines and family members. Thanks to an act of Congress in 2022 opening the door to lawsuits by Camp Lejeune victims, those cases are on track for hearings before federal judges in North Carolina this summer.

“At Camp Lejeune, the government didn’t admit the harm until it had to,” Baehr said. “At Red Hill, they literally waited until thousands of people could smell it and were getting sick and going to emergency rooms.”

A history of pollution

The 2021 spill was not the first for Red Hill, a fuel depot containing 20 giant tanks, each large enough to hold a 20-story building, built under 100 feet of volcanic rock to withstand enemy attacks. A November report by a group of state and local officials organized as the Red Hill Water Alliance Initiative estimated there have been at least 70 leaks since the facility was completed in 1943, spilling as much as 2 million gallons of fuel into the environment.

“For this to occur over a period of 80 years just 100 feet above an aquifer on an island that cannot replace its water source presents an existential challenge,” the report said.

The spill in 2021 was actually the result of two accidents: a mistaken valve opening on May 6 that released the jet fuel into the Red Hill system, then a train cart breaking a pipe on Nov. 20 that allowed the fuel to flow into the water supplies.

Navy officials initially apologized for the delay in notifying residents about the spill, and in a joint stipulation filed in federal court in May 2023, the Navy admitted its negligence in operating Red Hill and acknowledged that some plaintiffs “suffered injuries compensable under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).”

That stipulation marked the first time a group of plaintiffs was successful in a mass tort claim against the U.S. government for environmental damages under the FTCA, Baehr said. “There have been other cases against the United States for environmental torts,” including claims for damages at Camp Lejeune, she said. “But this is the first one that we know of that succeeded.”

Now it will be up to U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi to decide on damages in a half-dozen “bellwether” cases, “and we will take those numbers and try to reach a deal with the government” on compensation for other plaintiffs, Baehr said. She said she expects the trial to take two to three weeks, with a decision by the judge on damage amounts later this year.

The bellwether cases include reports of long-lasting symptoms, tumors and neurological effects.

Maj. Amanda Feindt, her husband and two children have all suffered from “debilitating symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, dehydration, diarrhea, migraines, lethargy, and neurological changes,” the lawsuit said. “Their children’s lives have been turned upside down as multiple doctors have tried to explain and treat their symptoms.”

The Freeman family, including an active-duty Navy ensign, “has been plagued with abdominal pain, vomiting, memory loss, skin rashes, brain fog, eye irritation, seizures, and teeth and gum issues because of the fuel leaks caused by the Navy.” Unhappy with the care they were receiving in Hawaii, the family moved to California, where Nastasia Freeman, the ensign’s wife, is still battling multiple health problems. “Financially, Nastasia’s work as a therapist has ground to a halt with her family’s medical challenges,” the lawsuit said. “The cost of the move, the house, and the medical procedures has left her family in dire financial straits.”

Jamie Simic, whose husband is a senior chief petty officer in the Navy, was already suffering from a syndrome when she was exposed to the contamination in 2021. She went to the emergency room five times from July to December that year, and doctors said she had cysts on her kidney and breast, a tumor on her ovary and damage to her colon and esophagus that may have been exacerbated by the tainted water. “After dropping below 98 pounds, she began telling her children things they should know if she passed away,” the lawsuit stated.

Navy disputes impact

Despite a litany of similar complaints, the Defense Department has argued in legal briefs that the spill was a “nuisance” that might have caused only temporary health problems, and some of those might be “somatic” as a result of stress about the contamination.

“People are still sick, and the government is still looking at sick people and saying they’re not sick,” Baehr said.

“They’re claiming there was not enough fuel in the water to make people sick. On the other hand, they’re setting up a registry, they’re notifying every doctor in the medical system to look out for symptoms attributable to Red Hill and they’re acknowledging that there is ongoing neurological harm,” she said. “So how can they do all that in the real world and take a position in the case that there wasn’t enough fuel to make anyone sick and that everyone’s symptoms are psychosomatic? That’s literally the position that they’re taking in the case.”

The Navy did not respond to a request for comment, but under pressure from the state and the EPA, the DOD agreed to “defuel” the Red Hill tanks and shut down the facility.

The commander of Joint Task Force-Red Hill, Vice Adm. John Wade, said in a March 29 news release that more than 104 million gallons of fuel had been removed from the tanks and the rest of the cleanup has been turned over to the Naval Closure Task Force. “My hope is that the removal of the majority of the fuel from above the aquifer helps us all collectively move forward and continue the healing process,” Wade said.

But many in the community are still concerned, with the EPA reporting in March that some residents are still seeing a sheen in their water and at least 10 are continuing to have skin irritation.

“Defueling is not going to solve the entire problem,” said Wayne Tanaka, director of the Sierra Club in Hawaii, which has filed a number of lawsuits citing environmental problems at Red Hill in recent years. He said there are still 4,000 gallons of fuel in the Red Hill pipes, sludge in the tanks — a Navy news report estimates 28,000 gallons — and at least 5,000 gallons of fuel in the aquifer below the site.

Hawaii’s congressional delegation was able to include $1 billion for Red Hill cleanup activities in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act, but Tanaka is not hopeful for a full cleanup given the Navy’s history of problems at the facility and elsewhere.

“There is another potential 2 million gallons that could be in the environment from spills over the decades,” he said.

“There’s been a long history of contamination we’ve experienced from the DOD, not only the Navy,” Tanaka said. “Even when they have the most intense scrutiny they can’t prevent mishaps from happening. It’s not an isolated incident.”

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