Trial to Begin for Military Families Suing over Hawaii Water Contamination

Water sample test at Red Hill
A Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command contractor tests a water sample for total petroleum hydrocarbons as a part of real-time monitoring at Red Hill Well, April 18, 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mar’Queon A. D. Tramble)

Lawyers for military families who were exposed to tainted water at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii in 2021 after a massive jet fuel spill will begin making their case before a judge on Monday.

Three separate lawsuits, representing more than 7,500 service members, military dependents and civilian residents, have been filed over the exposure caused by spills at the Defense Department's now-shuttered Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility near Honolulu.

The trial, to take place in the U.S. District Court of Hawaii, will be representative of all three suits. The plaintiffs seek damages for injuries and illnesses they say were caused by drinking, bathing and laundering clothes in fuel following a spill in November that displaced or forced more than 93,000 residents to use alternate sources of water for months.

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In the case, Judge Leslie Kobayashi will hear from more than a dozen "bellwether plaintiffs" who represent individuals across the suits. The trial is considered to be the first mass environmental case against the U.S. government under the Federal Tort Claims Act, a 1940s law that creates narrow exceptions to the general legal immunity enjoyed by the federal government.

The plaintiffs say the November spill sent many seeking medical treatment for rashes, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, light-headedness, nosebleeds and more. Many also say they experienced mysterious symptoms much earlier, which they attributed to a spill the previous May that released 20,000 gallons of fuel into tunnels at the facility, but the judge will not be examining those prior symptoms.

The Department of Justice has argued that it is difficult to tie the families' symptoms to the fuel exposure and there is little scientific evidence to support what the government said was short exposure to long-term illnesses.

In November 2021, residents of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Aliamanu Military Reservation and elsewhere were exposed to the fuel after a pipe ruptured at the Red Hill tank farm, sending up to 5,000 gallons of fuel into a nearby drinking water well owned by the Navy that supplied water to the joint base and nearby communities.

It was later revealed that the fuel in the pipe originated from the massive May spill.

Following the November release, the Navy issued a statement saying there were "no signs or indication" that fuel had entered the groundwater or soil and the drinking water remained safe.

But dozens of residents complained of the smell and taste, as well as health issues, and many were forced to leave their homes during the winter holiday season.

The Navy later admitted that the contamination had occurred and launched a massive cleanup effort while the Defense Department, under pressure from the state of Hawaii, environmental activists and members of Congress, moved to close Red Hill.

The final shipment of more than 104 million gallons of fuel left Hawaii in December, and Joint Task Force Red Hill removed all available residual fuel in March. The Navy Closure Task Force took over responsibility for the facility and will complete the effort, extracting sludge from the tanks, cleaning them and removing 10 miles of pipeline that runs from Red Hill to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

Last week, it removed 1,012 gallons, or roughly 99%, of firefighting foam concentrate from the facility with plans to remove all of the foam, which contains chemicals linked to several types of cancer, as well as other health disorders.

According to Kristina Baehr, an attorney for the plaintiffs, the judge will review thousands of pages of documents and depositions and will hear from some witnesses, mainly those whom the Justice Department plans to cross-examine.

"The government has admitted liability (negligence), but continues to fight Red Hill victims -- presenting a conciliatory public face on the billion-dollar environmental cleanup, but continuing to avoid accountability and trying to discredit victims of the contamination behind the scenes and in court," Baehr said in a press release Wednesday.

The trial is expected to take 10 days.

Army Maj. Amanda Feindt, who is among the service members suing the government and whose husband, Patrick Feindt, is the lead plaintiff on one of the suits, said during an interview Wednesday that her family, including her now 6-year-old daughter and 4-year old son, continues to have health issues related to the spill.

She is suing out of concern for the long-term health consequences of family members and other children affected by the spill, but also wants to hold the government accountable for the harm caused to military personnel, dependents and civilian employees.

"I look at everything as a senior leader -- people first," Feindt said. "The military has made it clear they are just taking care of themselves. It's disheartening."

Related: Red Hill Registry Being Planned to Study Long-Term Health Effects of Tainted Water on Hawaii Military Community

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