Military Families in Hawaii File Claims Against Navy over Tainted Water

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Contractor provides monitoring of water samples at Red Hill Well in Hawaii.
A Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command contractor provides monitoring of water samples at Red Hill Well in support of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam’s water recovery efforts. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mar’Queon A. D. Tramble)

More than a dozen residents of military housing near Honolulu have filed claims against the Navy, alleging they were sickened as a result of fuel contamination to the drinking water supply near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.

Fifteen military family members and civilian tenants submitted paperwork under the Federal Tort Claims Act seeking compensation for health issues they say are related to consuming the tainted water, the result of a fuel spill at a Navy storage facility last November.

The claims, which represent the first step in a lawsuit against the federal government, allege that the Navy failed to disclose the November spill, as well as an earlier spill last May.

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When the families sought medical treatment from the service for symptoms possibly related to consuming petroleum products, military providers "failed to run the standard toxicology labs to test liver function, kidney function and complete blood count," the families lawyers wrote in their filing.

As a result, some of the families continue to have symptoms of fuel ingestion and are at risk for conditions such as leukemia, immune disorders, kidney disease, heart conditions, gastrointestinal problems and neurological effects, according to their legal representatives.

"What a rare occurrence in history, that the same person that poisoned you is also the entity that is supposed to be caring for you," said Kristina Baehr, an attorney with Just Well Law in Austin, Texas.

Families living in military communities served by a Navy-managed water system near Honolulu began reporting Nov. 28 that their tap water smelled of gasoline and had an oily sheen.

    Tests later revealed that wells in the system had been contaminated with jet fuel or had traces of diesel, the result of spills at the service's Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, used to store supplies to power the Navy's Pacific Fleet.

    As a result, residents of entire neighborhoods were sent to hotels or given the chance to stay in their homes, relying on water hauled in by trucks.

    But while the Navy established protocols and services to provide family assistance, attorneys say that care has fallen short, especially the medical treatment provided.

    "It is our clients who evacuated the island who have received appropriate care from civilian providers," wrote Just Well Law attorneys and representatives of the Hosoda Law Group, Honolulu, in a letter to Vice Adm. Darse Crandall in the Navy's Office of the Judge Advocate.

    In the letter, the attorneys said their clients experienced symptoms such as abdominal pain, rashes, memory loss, seizures, thyroid conditions, eye irritation, headaches and lethargy, and are at risk for long-term health consequences.

    "We are demanding that they at least get a basic level of care," Baehr said. "And we are asking for medical monitoring as part of our claims -- monetary compensation for medical monitoring so they can be seen by civilian providers."

    Active-duty military personnel are barred from suing the Department of Defense for injuries considered incidental to military service. But under a law passed in 2019, they may file claims for medical malpractice.

    Military families and civilians are free to sue the federal government under the Federal Tort Claim Act for harm or negligence that results in an injury to them.

    According to the law, the Navy has six months from the filing to settle on an amount and pay out claims, according to Baehr. If the Navy doesn't respond, claimants will file a lawsuit, she said.

    Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, the Navy's chief of information, said in a statement Wednesday that the service had "no comment regarding any potential future legal actions."

    Some affected families already have filed a potential class-action suit against the private companies that manage military housing in Honolulu. That suit alleges that the companies failed to warn tenants of the risks that the Red Hill facility posed to their drinking water supply.

    The Navy is not named in that suit, which has been filed against Ohana Military Communities and Hunt HM Property Management, as well as Island Palm Communities and Hickam Communities, both operated by Lendlease.

    Baehr, who is not involved in the suit against the housing companies, said her clients have faced difficulties with the private management companies, some of which are demanding money from tenants who want to break their leases or who have refused to pay rent since they have not been living in their homes or lack access to fresh water.

    "I have three clients that in the last few days have received bills for tens of thousands of dollars," Baehr said.

    She added that she remains hopeful the Navy will settle with all families affected by the contamination, given that Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said the service plans to take responsibility for the issue.

    "This is what the Federal Tort Claims Act was designed for. You were harmed by the negligence of a federal agency, and you can file a claim against the federal agency," Baehr said.

    Baehr and attorney Lyle Hosoda will host a town hall meeting Thursday to discuss the legal options available to military family members and civilians affected by the contamination.

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

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