Military Families File Lawsuit over Water Contamination in Hawaii

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NAVFAC contractor collects water sample at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam
A Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command (NAVFAC) contractor collects a water confirmation sample in support of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam (JBPHH) water quality recovery efforts, December 23, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Christopher Thomas)

Residents of military housing on Oahu have filed a potential class-action lawsuit against their property management companies after fuel was found in their tap water, driving them from their homes.

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 31 in Hawaii's First Circuit Court, alleges that the companies failed to honor their residential leases, guaranteeing their tenants potable water and habitable housing.

The plaintiffs also say the companies -- Ohana Military Communities and Hunt HM Property Management, as well as Island Palm Communities and Hickam Communities operated by Lendlease -- failed to warn tenants of the risks a fuel storage facility posed to their homes' water supply, exposing them to "adverse health risks and other adverse health outcomes without their knowledge and against their will," according to court documents.

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"Specifically, defendants failed to disclose risks associated with water contamination and failed to provide clean, safe, and healthy potable water rendering plaintiffs' communities uninhabitable," plaintiffs' attorneys wrote in the suit.

Although the Navy operates the well and treatment system that supplies water to the homes, the service is not named in the lawsuit. Active-duty personnel are largely barred from suing the U.S. military for personal injuries that may be considered incidental to military service, and their family members are similarly restricted from suing for their service members' injuries.

Dependents are, however, allowed to sue the federal government for negligence.

Thousands of residents at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and other military communities near Honolulu began reporting Nov. 28 that their water smelled of fuel and had an oily sheen.

Families posted on social media and notified authorities that the water and the smell were making them ill, causing rashes, nausea, nosebleeds and other health symptoms.

Navy officials initially said the water well serving the affected neighborhoods showed no sign of contamination, but later tests determined that the well, known as Red Hill, had been polluted with jet fuel, while another section of the system tested positive for petroleum contamination.

The contamination forced more than 3,000 military, civilian and retiree families into area hotels over the holidays as the Navy continues to work to resolve the problem.

The plaintiffs in the case include residents Michael Casey, Payton Lamb and Jamie Williams, a Coast Guard spouse who told The Washington Post that her health problems began well before the contamination became obvious.

She said her menstrual period inexplicably lasted for three months last year and she experienced brain fog and fatigue that "cleared up when I stopped drinking the water."

The lawsuit has been filed on behalf of all residents and will need to be certified as a class action to apply to all those affected.

The plaintiffs opted to sue the property management companies, which have fewer legal protections than the federal government in liability cases.

Spokesmen for Hunt Military Communities – the company that oversees Ohana and Hunt HM Property Management – and Lendlease declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but said they have been working with the Navy, the state of Hawaii and others to resolve the problem and assist their residents since the problems began.

"Our teams have been working tirelessly to support our residents during this difficult time," said Brian Stann, president of Hunt Military Communities, in a statement to Military.com. "We have continuously communicated with and provided support and resources to our impacted residents."

"From the very beginning of the fuel spill from the Navy's Red Hill fuel storage facility, Island Palm Communities and Hickam Communities have been, and will continue to be, committed to serving the needs of the military and our residents to the best of our ability," said Tom Reller, Lendlease's corporate communications director for the Americas, in an emailed statement. "We can assure you that our commitment to our residents' wellbeing is always our first priority."

Lendlease's chief operating officer, Phillip Carpenter, said employees began distributing bottled water to the Island Palms community and proactively working with the Army to establish a hub for affected residents to receive services as soon as the problem came to light.

He added that at Hickam, which is managed primarily by the Navy, Lendlease had less "visibility" as to what was being offered to Air Force tenants there, so the company contacted all 2,400 families to ensure they were supported.

"We've maintained as much communication as possible with our families," Carpenter said.

Many of the families continue to struggle, however. A Navy spouse told Military.com the families have been advised to replace all plastic in the kitchen, as well as their dishwashers, washing machines and coffee makers. But the families have no idea how or when they will be reimbursed for these losses.

"We are having problems getting clear answers on any subject. ... Housing says it's the Navy's responsibility, and the Navy says it's housing. ... We are being stonewalled," said the wife, who asked not to be identified because she has been harassed for previously speaking out.

The Navy began flushing the system last month, starting with a test run in the Pearl City Peninsula military housing neighborhood. The effort was delayed, however, by heavy rains at the start of the new year, according to service officials.

The Hawaii Department of Health issued an emergency order Dec. 6 requiring the Navy to drain the tanks at the fuel facility, which can hold up to 250 million gallons of fuel for aircraft and ships and is one of the country's largest storage facilities.

The Navy has protested the order. A Hawaii health official affirmed the order Tuesday; the Navy has not announced whether it will appeal the decision.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

Related: More than a Thousand Military Families in Hawaii Stuck in Hotels Through the Holidays

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