May 28, 2024


Military and civilian families told a federal judge this week they continue to be sickened, more than two years after a US navy underground fuel storage facility leaked thousands of gallons of jet fuel into Pearl Harbor’s main drinking water and caused a water crisis in the Pacific.

United States district court judge Leslie Kobayashi heard testimony from nearly a dozen impacted families suing the US government over the leak from the second world war era storage tanks that has resulted in vomiting, diarrhea, rashes and other ailments. Plaintiffs said the illnesses are connected to the tainted water serving the nearly 93,000 residents in and around Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

Natasha Freeman, who is one of the plaintiffs and lives a mile away from the fuel tanks, testified that all three of her sons experienced vomiting, seizures, lesions and tremors they never had before.

Another witness, US army major Mandy Feindt, testified on behalf of her husband Patrick and the experiences of their children.

“When they failed to warn, they took away my right to protect my children,” she said, referring to the navy waiting several days to advise that the public the drinking water was unsafe, even as her family and others continued to use it.

The Department of Justice disputes those claims, even though federal officials have admitted limited wrongdoing. Freeman and Feindt are two of the “bellwether” plaintiffs, who represent more than 7,500 other military family members, civilians and servicemembers in three federal lawsuits.

Built in the 1940s, the Red Hill underground bulk fuel storage facility contains 20 tanks that are 250ft tall and can hold a total of 250 million gallons of fuel. The site has had several leaks since its construction.

The November 2021 leak was not the first, and occurred not long after the Hawaii department of health fined the navy for operations and maintenance violations. A whistleblower report also conveyed how navy officials provided false testimony and withheld information about the corrosion at the facility.

The US Department of Defense has since ordered the permanent closure of the facility by 2027. As of March, over 104 million gallons have been removed, alongside 28,000 gallons of sludge and 4,000 gallons of residual fuel, and operations have been turned over to the Navy Closure Task Force.

Attorneys for the US Department of Justice admitted in court documents the spill at Red Hill “caused a nuisance” for the plaintiffs, that the United States “breached its duty of care” and that the plaintiffs suffered compensable injuries. However, DoJ attorney Rosemary Yogiaveetil disputed in her opening statements that the medical problems alleged by the plaintiffs were not caused by the spill, and it was not large enough and too short-lived to have caused long-lasting health problems.

Engineers with the navy at the Red Hill facility in Hawaii. Photograph: Luke McCall/AP

Yogiaveetil said if plaintiffs were exposed to jet fuel at all, it lasted “only 24 to 72 hours at most”. She and the other lead attorney, Eric Rey, said they needed to rely on science and that the plaintiffs had to prove how much jet fuel they were exposed to.

Rey also argued that many of the injuries from the claimants were pre-existing.

The DoJ’s assertions were made days after the navy said testing methods used for the past two years to determine the water safe were inappropriate to test drinking water quality, and is designed to test wastewater, which created false positives.

Last month, the navy released documents deflecting that serious health issues occurred from the spill, and there was a lack of system-wide impact associated with the fuel leak. Officials did state there was an uptick in doctor visits in early December 2021 with reports of rashes, intestinal problems, and neurological and psychological problems.

The report did not look at long-term effects.

Kristina Baehr, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said she already considers the case a success because the US government has admitted liability.

“Thousands of people went to the emergency room on the island of Oahu … because they drank water contaminated with jet fuel,” Baehr said addressing a crowd outside the federal courthouse in Honolulu. “The government calls it contamination. Our clients and the people of Hawaii call it poisoned.”

The case is scheduled to resume Tuesday and last 10 days.



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