1,000 More Pearl Harbor Area Residents Join Lawsuit over Red Hill Fuel Spill

Walkthrough of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Halawa, Hawaii
Joint Task Force-Red Hill Repair Directorate project manager describes a repair to regulators of the Hawaii Department of Health and Environmental Protection Agency during a walkthrough of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Halawa, Hawaii, Jun. 12, 2023. (DoD photo by U.S. Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Nicholas Brown)

More than 1,600 current and former residents of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam have filed claims against the U.S. government for exposure to jet fuel in their drinking water, with at least another thousand expected to file before the November submission deadline.

Attorneys for the military family members and civilians who lived in base housing in 2021 said Tuesday that 1,002 new claims have been filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act, adding to the hundreds already signed onto the suit.

The claims represent the first step in the litigation process against the U.S. Navy over a petroleum leak at its Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility that dumped roughly 5,000 gallons of jet fuel into the ground and the drinking water supply for the Hawaii military installation.

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Kristina Baehr, an attorney with Just Well Law in Austin, Texas, said her firm is working with a team to process another thousand claims before the Nov. 20 filing deadline, the two-year anniversary of the spill that fouled the Navy's water supply.

According to Baehr, the majority of her clients -- 67% -- have chronic health problems that began when they were exposed to the fuel, with more than two-thirds reporting neurological symptoms and at least half saying they have ongoing skin conditions, gastrointestinal issues and respiratory problems.

"Our team is working hard to hold accountable a government that allegedly exposed its people to dangerous contaminants, failed to treat them, and told them they were not sick," Baehr said in an interview with Military.com. "These families are sick."

The Federal Tort Claims Act allows civilians, including military family members, who are hurt or injured as the result of government action or negligence to file an administrative claim within two years of the event.

If the claim is denied, they may proceed with a lawsuit.

In the case of the Red Hill spill, the claimants would become part of a suit filed last August by Patrick Feindt, the husband of Army Maj. Mandy Feindt, who is seeking compensation for physical ailments he and his family continue to experience as a result of the exposure, as well as for emotional distress and financial hardship endured when his family requested reassignment from Hawaii.

More than 93,000 people living in military housing on and around Pearl Harbor were affected by a massive spill of 20,000 gallons of fuel at the Navy's Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility in May 2021 that eventually led to the dumping of more than 5,000 gallons into the ground and tap water in November -- the catastrophic event that exposed base residents to the fuel.

The incident forced thousands from their homes and obliged those who opted to remain to use bottled water for months.

Surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January and February 2022 and again in September 2022 found that military personnel, their spouses and children suffered headaches, skin irritation and rashes, diarrhea, fatigue and dizziness they believe were caused by using contaminated drinking water at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

More than 80% of families surveyed in the wake of the massive spill reported ongoing health problems nearly one year after the leak, according to the surveys.

Just Well Law's announcement of new claimants was made the day before a U.S. District Court judge in Hawaii is set to hear a motion by the Justice Department requesting that Navy Adm. Samuel Paparo be excused from being deposed as part of the ongoing litigation.

As commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, Paparo, whose name has been floated as the service's choice for the next chief of naval operations but whose nomination has not yet been announced by the White House, was responsible for the Navy's immediate response to the spill as well as follow-on actions and the subsequent investigation.

Red Hill families have launched a campaign to stop Paparo's nomination and plan to protest Wednesday outside the courthouse. They say that Paparo was responsible for notifying residents using the Navy's water system of the spill and issuing a stop-use notice but failed to do so for days after the spill.

"They poisoned our kids and destroyed the lands here," said a Navy spouse who asked not to be identified to protect her active-duty husband. "Please support us."

The Defense Department is currently preparing to drain the fuel from the Red Hill facility, conducting repairs and tests and rehearsing for the task, expected to begin in October and be completed by January.

The complicated job is being handled by Joint Task Force Red Hill. During a town hall meeting last month, Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Michelle Link, the task force's deputy commander, said the goal is to transfer all the fuel remaining from the World War II-era tank farm without spilling a drop.

"We would like to rebuild trust in a way that demonstrates confidence in our ability to execute before we begin moving fuel," Link said.

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

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