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Military families sue US over water contaminated by Navy jet fuel

The Navy’s “toxic secrets” contributed to severe health issues for military families in Hawaii who were forced to drink tainted water and denied appropriate medical care, according to the lawsuit.

HONOLULU (CN) — Starting in late 2021, a jet fuel leak at a U.S. Navy facility on Oahu has compromised the drinking water and risked the health and lives of thousands of residents in the Red Hill neighborhood; those most affected were military families living on the Navy’s own water system. Now, affected families are bringing charges against the United States for medical negligence, failure to treat, delayed care and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in federal court, details the myriad of medical issues four families have faced since drinking and bathing with the tainted water, encompassing everything from gastrointestinal issues to skin conditions and neurological conditions. The lawsuit also alleges that government doctors continually refused to test or diagnose the families as they came in, begging for help.

The lawsuit claims, “When the plaintiff families presented to emergency rooms or 'exposure tents' that were set up by the Army and Navy, most were denied any tests or labs. Families have even been told that testing is 'impossible' and that the toxicologist at Walter Reade advised against ordering labs or other tests for fear of the implications of the care that would be required thereafter.”

The previously healthy families began to experience a barrage of various symptoms, ranging from nausea and fevers, to skin lesions and rashes and even cysts and tumors. Although the families have sought treatment off-island with surgeries, biopsies, brain scans and other procedures, they continue to experience symptoms, according to the lawsuit, nearly an entire year since they were first exposed to the contaminated water, with seemingly no remedy to their suffering.

Health risks to each of the family’s young children were especially severe. The children have experienced developmental delays and behavioral problems that were not present before the contamination crisis. The complaint details the Wyatt family’s suffering after continual exposure to the tainted water.

“Their daughter, I.W., began suffering from abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, irritation of the skin and eyes, mouth sores, heart palpitations, bladder incontinence, and substantial hair loss, all before the age of four,” the complaint states.

All four of the plaintiff families have since moved away from Hawaii, for the most part at their own expense, to get away from the contaminated water and to receive medical treatment.

“As a general rule, Captain McGinnis has maintained that no one still has symptoms because of the exposure, and that is wrong. It’s one thing to cause the contamination, but another thing to tell the families that you made sick, that they’re not actually sick. And then offer no medical help for them,” said attorney Kristin Baehr of Texas-based law firm Just Well Law, who is representing the families in collaboration with Honolulu attorney Lyle Hosoda.

Prior lawsuits regarding the Red Hill contamination have been filed against landlords by civilians or against the Navy by environmental agencies, making this lawsuit the first from military families in federal court addressing medical concerns. Baehr hopes to add more plaintiffs to the suit as they work through the administrative process.

“Every single person on the water line has a claim,” Baehr said. “They’re going to be timed out if they don’t bring a claim now. Even if they aren’t sick right now, this is something that disrupted their life, it caused trauma and fear, and it put them at risk of future harm."

The claim is filed under the Federal Torts Claims Act, which allows private parties to sue for injuries committed by individuals in the official scope of the government. The lawsuit seeks compensation for medical expenses, as well as physical and mental suffering. Only family members are covered in the lawsuit as active-duty military members are barred from pursuing claims under the Federal Torts Claims Act.

The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, built by the Navy during World War II, holds up to 250 million gallons of fuel, and supplies planes and ships at nearby Pearl Harbor. The fuel, named in the suit specifically as Jet Propellant-5 and Jet Propellant-8, contains chemicals like benzene that have been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as potentially toxic if ingested.

Leaks in May and November of 2021, attributed by the Navy to operator error, released thousands of gallons of fuel into wells in the Navy’s own water system. The system supplies drinking water to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, where a majority of military community locations and housing are located.

According to the lawsuit, the military failed to take appropriate action to warn JBPHH residents of the leak, initially downplaying the Nov. 20 incident. Many families soon began to report that water from their taps had an odd sheen and distinct odor.

Confirmation of the leak was not announced until Dec. 2, nearly two weeks after the incident. Within the two weeks, afflicted residents relied on Hawaii’s Department of Health to provide advisories for the unsafe drinking water.

The Navy response to the contamination was wildly condemned from every direction, including military families themselves, as well as the wider island community, particularly by environmental protection groups and Native Hawaiian activists and even Hawaii state representatives.

“For too long, it was the Navy’s narrative that dominated that basically it was over. It’s just important that these families’ experiences get shared, because the Navy’s account of how this went down is not accurate,” said Baehr.

Although military families at JBPHH were most directly affected, Oahu’s local civilian populations have been warned by the Board of Water Supply to conserve water as much as possible, and to keep an eye out for possible contamination in their own water. Oahu’s main aquifer, which serves most of the island, is located 100 feet below the Red Hill Facility.

Collaborative reports released by the Navy and the Hawaii DOH say that the water is currently safe to drink as of early August, although reports of illness have continued. The Navy has been ordered to defuel the facility and have recently submitted plans for the process. The Navy did not respond immediately for comment.

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