Navy Says New Data Indicates No Long-Term Health Effects from Red Hill Spill as Trial Gets Underway

Contractors at Red Hill move a disassembled section of diesel fuel pipe
Contractors working for Navy Closure Task Force - Red Hill move a disassembled section of diesel fuel pipe outside of an entrance to the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Mar. 27, 2024 (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Glenn Slaughter)

The U.S. Navy released new documents Friday that show the service provided clean water to residents of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, within days of a 2021 fuel spill and that medical appointments returned to pre-spill levels within a month, an indication it says supports an assertion that there likely will be no long-term health effects from the accident.

The release of the documents, which include water quality data and reports on medical and mental health visits following the incident, coincided with the start Monday of a trial against the federal government by families who say they have chronic health problems as a result of the spill, which released about 5,000 gallons of fuel into the base drinking water supply.

According to the Navy, of the approximately 93,000 people affected by the spill, 27,797 sought medical care within the military health system in the incident's immediate aftermath.

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Of those, about one-quarter sought care for what the Navy described as a "medical diagnosis of interest" -- meaning symptoms that could be tied to fuel exposure, such as headache, rashes, abdominal pain, cough or fatigue.

By the end of December, however, the number of medical appointments had "returned to pre-release levels," according to the Navy.

The service said roughly 20% of the 27,797 people also sought care for mental health concerns after the spill but mainly for "anxiety, stress and mood disorders." It said the findings were on par with the number of appointments in the year before and after the spill for the same conditions.

"There was a short-term increase in visits for behavioral syndromes related to physical factors immediately after the fuel release. However, there was no overall increase in visits for behavioral and neurodevelopmental health disorders," Navy analysts wrote.

The findings, based on a review of military health records, did not include data from patients who sought care from civilian hospitals or physicians after the spill, which took place over Thanksgiving weekend in 2021.

Nonetheless, Navy officials said, the results "support the statement made by the Hawaii Department of Health soon after the event that, based on available data, 'people exposed to contaminated drinking water in this incident are not expected to experience long-term health effects.'"

On Nov. 20, 2021, an employee at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility struck a pipe with a small trolley, releasing thousands of gallons of fuel and water that had been contained in the pipe since a massive spill the previous May.

Residents nearly immediately began complaining of the fuel smell in their tap water, as well as symptoms including burning eyes, stomach upset, rashes and headaches.

In the days following the spill, Navy officials said there was no "immediate indication that the water [was] not safe," and they were continuing to investigate the reports.

They later issued a warning to stop drinking the water, then began a cleanup response that eventually led to the closure of Red Hill by the Defense Department.

In a separate water quality report also released Friday, the Navy said that, while fuel entered the water system, the available data demonstrated a "lack of a systemwide impact associated with JP-5 fuel," a kerosene-based fuel used for powering jet engines.

Exposure to jet fuel is associated with a variety of short-term symptoms, such as vomiting, nausea, rashes and respiratory distress; very few studies have been done on long-term health effects.

The service said the main time frame for exposure was Nov. 20 to Nov. 29, 2021, adding that after the 29th, the Navy's water supply to the base came from a shaft that was not affected by the spill.

More than 7,500 residents of Joint Pearl Harbor-Hickam and area communities have sued the U.S. government in three separate suits over the spill, alleging long-term health consequences related to consuming fuel-tainted water.

In the trial set to start Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Kobayashi was expected to 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.

Army Maj. Amanda Feindt and her husband Patrick are plaintiffs in the suits; they say their family continues to have ongoing health issues that include permanent lung damage in their son, gastrointestinal issues requiring surgery and trauma.

They no longer drink tap water anywhere.

"What this lawsuit is about is providing us with resources we can put away for our kids, because we don't know what the future holds," Feindt said during an interview April 24 with

"If you look at Camp Lejeune, the latency period for exposure-related cancer can be decades," she said, referring to contamination at a North Carolina Marine Corps base that spanned three decades and affected more than 1 million people who lived and worked at the installation.

In March, the Defense Health Agency issued guidance to military medical providers on treating patients exposed to jet fuel. The DHA advised physicians to "thoroughly evaluate patients" and "consider the possibility of novel or atypical presentations."

"Some patients have continued to report persistent heterogenous symptoms, which may not be well explained. The long-term health risks of exposure to JP-5 and fuel additives are unknown," DHA officials wrote in their advisory.

According to the agency, the Defense Department's public health arm is planning an ongoing investigation into health concerns and an independent registry to monitor health and quality of life.

The Navy last week also released the results of a "Swarm Team" investigation into low-level detections of total petroleum hydrocarbons in the Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system in late 2023.

The team determined that the positive tests were actually the result of "laboratory contamination" and not associated with Red Hill. Navy officials said the false positives were the result of the presence of chlorine, which is added to disinfect drinking water, and were not fuel.

"There is still work to do," said Rear Adm. Marc Williams, deputy commander of Navy Closure Task Force-Red Hill. "We are confident there is no JP-5 or fuel in the water, but we will keep testing and assessing the data to determine what is causing some of the reported smells, sheens, and health concerns residents have expressed."

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