New Red Hill Lawsuit Filed by over 2,000 Plaintiffs Claims Long-Term Health Effects from Fuel Spill

Residual fuel removal at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.
A member in support of Joint Task Force-Red Hill prepares a containment system for residual fuel removal at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, Jan. 22, 2024, Halawa, Hawaii. (DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. ZaBarr Jones)

More than 2,200 military families and civilians filed the latest lawsuit Monday against the federal government over water contamination at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii -- many of whom say they still suffer health effects from the 2021 debacle that sent thousands of gallons of jet fuel into the tap water in their homes.

The suit -- the third filed over spills at the U.S. Navy's Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility -- alleges that personnel, families and civilians have ongoing medical conditions as a result of drinking, bathing and inhaling fumes from the base water supply.

Several families say the health consequences have been so severe that they have been placed in their respective services' Exceptional Family Member Programs, giving them access to additional services and treatment but limiting them to assignments in locations where such care is available.

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The case, Hughes et. al. v. the United States of America, is named for the family of Jaclyn Hughes, the spouse of an active-duty Navy officer who was living on base on Nov. 22, 2021, when more than 5,000 gallons of jet fuel leaked from the Red Hill facility into a drinking water well operated by the service.

Shortly before the spill, Hughes gave birth to a son. Around Thanksgiving, she began experiencing a burning throat while her newborn broke out into rashes, according to the lawsuit. Within weeks, the couple's daughter developed obsessive compulsive disorder and pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome, a condition categorized, in her case, by rage, irritability, sensitivity and other behavioral problems that she had never before displayed.

Although the cause of the illness is not well understood, according to Stanford Medicine, it is "thought to be triggered by infections, metabolic disturbances, and other inflammatory reactions."

She continues to display symptoms, the lawsuit alleges.

In the suit, retired Army Lt. Col. Anthony Wilson and wife Raechel Wilson said their children -- one of whom had previously been diagnosed with autism -- developed severe neurological symptoms within a month of the spill. In the case of the 6-year-old autistic son, he suffered manic episodes so severe he was prescribed Lithium, followed by the antipsychotic drug Abilify, which Wilson and his wife declined out of concern for long-term consequences, according to court documents.

More than 93,000 people living in military housing on and around Pearl Harbor were affected months earlier by a massive spill of 20,000 gallons of fuel at the Red HIll facility in May 2021, which eventually led to the dumping of fuel into the ground and tap water in November.

The November 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 was caused by using contaminated drinking water at Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

Facing pressure from the Hawaii delegation in Congress, environmental advocates and the State of Hawaii, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced in March 2022 that the Navy would close the massive Red Hill facility, which contained more than 12.4 million gallons of diesel and 93 million gallons of jet fuel.

Drainage is ongoing. Joint Task Force-Red Hill completed the gravity defueling portion, transferring 104 million gallons of the most easily removed fuel, on Dec. 16. Since Jan. 15, the task force has removed 25,002 gallons of residual fuel that was left behind in drains and vent valves, according to a press release.

The Hughes suit joins Patrick Feindt Jr. et. al v. the United States of America, which also seeks damages and compensation for health issues and trauma related to the spill, and Jessica Whaley et. al, v. the United States of America, a suit filed by active-duty personnel that challenges the Feres doctrine, a court precedent that largely prevents service members from suing the federal government for injuries.

The plaintiffs in the three cases, who now total more than 7,500 people, are represented by Just Well Law, an Austin, Texas-based firm.

Related: 3 Retired Admirals Censured for Roles in the Red Hill Spill that Tainted Navy Community's Drinking Water

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