Military families in Hawaii spark trial over 2021 jet fuel leak that tainted water

a woman
Richelle Dietz holds an empty five-gallon water bottle at her home in Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Monday, April 22, 2024, in Honolulu, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Mengshin Lin)

HONOLULU — A trial for a mass environmental injury case begins in Hawaii on Monday, more than two years after a U.S. military fuel tank facility under ground poisoned thousands of people when it leaked jet fuel into Pearl Harbor’s drinking water.

Instead of a jury, a judge in U.S. District Court in Honolulu will hear about a lawsuit against the United States by 17 “bellwether” plaintiffs: a cross-selection of relatives of military members representing more than 7,500 others, including service members, in three federal lawsuits.

According to court documents, the U.S. government has admitted the Nov. 20, 2021, spill at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility caused a nuisance for the plaintiffs, that the United States “breached its duty of care” and that the plaintiffs suffered compensable injuries.

But they dispute whether the residents were exposed to jet fuel at levels high enough to cause their alleged health effects, ranging from vomiting to rashes.

The plaintiffs have submitted declarations describing how the water crisis sickened them and left them with ongoing health problems, including seizures, asthma, eczema and vestibular dysfunction.

Nastasia Freeman, wife of a Navy lieutenant and mother of three, described how the family thought their vomiting and diarrhea was Thanksgiving food poisoning.

“I had developed a rash on my arms with sores and lesions on my scalp, feet, and hands accompanied by a headache,” she wrote. “I had a very strange sensation that I had never had before — I felt like my blood was on fire.”

Even their dogs were vomiting.

On Nov. 29, a nurse told her she received multiple calls all with a common theme: the tap water.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs argue Navy officials knew there was fuel in the water and failed to warn people not to drink it, even while telling residents the water was safe.

“It felt like we were being gaslit,” Freeman’s declaration filed in the case said. “We knew the water wasn’t safe, but the Navy was telling us that it was. They said they didn’t know what was in the water and that they were ‘investigating.'”

A Navy investigation report in 2022 listed a cascading series of mistakes from May 6, 2021, when an operator error caused a pipe to rupture and caused 21,000 gallons of fuel to spill while it was transferred between tanks. Most of this fuel spilled into a fire suppression line and sat there for six months, causing the line to sag. When a cart rammed into this sagging line on Nov. 20, it released 20,000 gallons of fuel.

The military eventually agreed to drain the tanks after the 2021 spill, amid state orders and protests from Native Hawaiians and other Hawaii residents concerned about the threat posed to Honolulu’s water supply. The tanks sit above an aquifer supplying water to 400,000 people in urban Honolulu.

A lot is riding on this trial.

“A bellwether trial helps attorneys to understand the likely success or failure of the cases that are in the pipeline,” explained Loretta Sheehan, a Honolulu-based personal injury attorney not involved in the water litigation.

The outcome can help determine future damages to be awarded or settlements, she said.

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