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Families say jet fuel-contaminated water from Navy spill on Oahu made their kids sick

U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi handed a box of tissues to multiple people testifying about illnesses and lasting trauma they say their families endured after the leak.

HONOLULU — In November 2021, fuel from a massive World War II-era underground storage facility called Red Hill leaked and contaminated the water supply of the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and surrounding areas on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. The U.S. Navy initially claimed the water was safe, but many people fell ill, exhibiting symptoms like vomiting, rashes, seizures and neurological issues.

A federal court in Honolulu heard testimony from plaintiffs, including members of military families, on Monday — the initial day of their class action against the Navy over the water contamination crisis that affected more than 93,000 Oahu residents. They talked about severe illnesses and long-term health impacts they attributed to the jet fuel leak.

"We were collectively poisoned," plaintiff Nastasia Freeman said through tears as she described her family's experience. "It was a choice, the poisoning was intentional."

The Freeman family lived a mile away from the Red Hill fuel tanks. Freeman said not only could you see the oil in the water, but “when you stepped outside, you could smell it.” 

Freeman told U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi that she lost wages because of all the doctor appointments her three sons needed. She said that after the leak, they experienced vomiting, lesions, seizures and tremors they never had before. Her youngest son had to be rushed unconscious to the hospital after he woke up screaming and collapsed. She said she had trouble getting help from physicians and felt so helpless she wrote Congress.

Major Amanda Feindt, an 18-year veteran of the military who took the witness stand Monday, said there was confusion and a lack of transparency as Navy emails assured residents the water was safe, even as her toddler son was "projectile vomiting" and "lethargic."

She said her husband may have suffered a stroke and has been plagued by cognitive issues and depression since the exposure. Their 6-year-old daughter is now afraid of drinking water, which she associates with illness, and their young son suffered lung damage, she said.

Kobayashi repeatedly paused proceedings on the first day of the bellwether trial as parents recounted the trauma and illnesses they said their children and spouses suffered at the government's hands. The judge passed tissue boxes to testifying parents on multiple occasions.

The plaintiffs claim the Navy didn't warn residents, heed previous leaks as warnings, or swiftly remediate the crisis.

Kristina Baehr of Just Well Law in Austin, Texas — lead counsel for the victims — said in her opening statement that the sheer scale of the Red Hill facility, which provides fuel for military operations across the Pacific, led the Navy to prioritize its operations over environmental and health concerns.

"Red Hill is the largest jet fuel storage in the world, and is stored directly above the island's only aquifer. It provides water to over 93,000 people," Baehr told the court, showing a Mason jar of dirty-looking water from a plaintiff's home. 

The government acknowledges the spill occurred but argues the low levels of fuel contamination could not have caused the severe array of symptoms the plaintiffs describe; instead, the government argues that many of the plaintiffs had pre-existing conditions. They say the Navy moved swiftly to provide clean water, flush distribution lines and offer housing once the spill was detected.

The Navy provided several experts to back up the claim that the jet fuel which leaked into the water system wasn't enough to cause illness.

Justice Department attorneys Eric Rey and Rosemary Yogiaveetil said the government follows scientific evidence. Plaintiffs must prove how much fuel they were exposed to, and one to three days of low-level exposure wouldn't be enough to cause the problems plaintiffs reported, the government argues.

The government cast doubt that there was any significant contamination. Yogiaveetil said plaintiffs would have been exposed to, at most, low levels of JP-5 fuel.

During cross examination, Rey argued that some of the plaintiffs weren’t exposed at all, since by their own admission they had stopped drinking the water.

“The myriad of injuries from claimants were pre-existing and have no link to JP-5 jet fuel,” Rey said.

The pipe rupture, caused by operator error, led to the spillage of 21,000 gallons of fuel.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website, symptoms of exposure to the JP-5 jet fuel involved in the leak could include liver damage, decreased immune response, impaired performance on neurological function tests, impaired hearing and severe skin issues.

The Red Hill tanks were emptied in March after years of public outcry.

Both parties have agreed to concentrate the damages question on the November fuel leak. Kobayashi will rule on the compensation amount for each plaintiff, but the judge ordered a more limited scope than the plaintiffs' original lawsuit, where they sought compensation for long-term medical issues and future health monitoring.

"We never received test results. I asked multiple people, commanders, and my requests were never answered," Feindt said. “When they failed to warn us, they took away my right to protect my children. ... I wasn't going to allow anyone to take away my right as a parent to keep my children safe."

Toward the end of her testimony, Feindt showed a drawing her daughter made: In the first panel, a colorful unicorn holds a glass, then drinks from it in the second, and violently expels the contents in the final panel.

"This court case is going to be over in a week. But the repercussions are not going to be over for us," Feindt said.

Categories / Civil Rights, Courts, Environment, Government, Health, Trials

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