Drinking Water Contaminated for Thousands Due to Navy’s Fuel Leak

On two separate occasions, Naval officials at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility negligently caused the release of jet fuel into the Navy water line. Government officials failed promptly disclose the contamination, which affected thousands of residents.

Kandace Watkins, J.D.

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— Updated on September 27, 2022

Drinking Water Contaminated for Thousands Due to Navy’s Fuel Leak

The Navy owns and operates the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility (Red Hill Facility) on the island of O’ahu, Hawaii. The facility includes 20 tanks carrying approximately 12.5 million gallons of fuel each. The Navy also owns and operates a water system that pumps water from underground aquifers. The water system provides drinking water to the military community and facilities, including military housing. The Red Hill Facility is situated 100 feet above an aquifer that supplies drinking water. Three wells supply the Navy’s drinking water, one of which is the Red Hill Shaft. The Red Hill Shaft well is the drinking water source for the plaintiffs in this action.

On May 6, 2021, Red Hill Facility operators negligently released approximately 1,618 gallons of jet fuel from the storage facility. The facility’s operators improperly executed a fuel transfer procedure, resulting in two piping joint ruptures and a subsequent fuel spill. Initially, the Navy denied that the leak contaminated any drinking water. However, following the incident, testing at the Red Hill Shaft showed elevated readings of contaminants in the drinking water. Despite the test results, the Navy did not immediately report its findings.

The Red Hill Water Contamination

On November 20, 2021, a government employee struck a fire suppression discharge pipe with a train cart. The fire suppression discharge pipe contained thousands of gallons of fuel and water from the May 6 leak. The incident caused a spill that injected jet fuel into the Red Hill Shaft well. Between the two incidents, approximately 20,000 gallons of fuel leaked from the facility into the Red Hill shaft. On November 21, 2021, the Navy issued a media release stating that officials responded to a leak at the Red Hill Facility and were able to recover the transfer of the contaminated water. The Navy assured the public that the contaminated water was not released into the environment and that the drinking water remained safe.

Resident’s Complaints

Between November 27-28, 2021, residents of the military housing neighborhood began to complain to Navy officials and the health department about an odor in their drinking water. Residents reported that the drinking water smelled like fuel and reacted to flames. Finally, on November 28, 2021, based on the complaints, the health department collected a water sample from the Red Hill Shaft. The water sample smelled of fuel. On November 29, the health department advised users to avoid using the water for drinking, cooking, or oral hygiene. Despite the advisory from the health department, the Navy continued to deny that the water was unsafe. In fact, on November 30, 2021, the Navy notified residents that they didn’t detect fuel in the water.

On December 2, 2021, the Navy finally announced that it detected petroleum products in the Red Hill Shaft well. However, it wasn’t until January 2022, that the Navy took responsibility for contaminating the drinking water for thousands of families.

The Impact of the Red Hill Water Contamination on Residents

The Red Hill Shaft supplies almost 20% of Honolulu’s drinking water. The families affected by the contaminated drinking water, who were previously healthy, reported a litany of physical and mental ailments. The complications included (but were not limited to):

  • Seizures
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Neurological issues
  • Burns
  • Rashes
  • Lesions
  • Thyroid abnormalities
  • Neurobehavioral challenges

In addition to the physical and mental impacts, the affected families have also experienced financial setbacks.

Allegations

As it relates to the families that initiated this action, they allege that at least one adult has had to leave their employment, leave the service, or suffer other adverse professional actions as they attempt to get well. Additionally, medical costs have become debilitating as each family sees a team of nearly 20 specialists to treat their ailments.

In addition, the plaintiffs allege that their children suffer from lethargy, vomiting, headaches, and developmental delays. One plaintiff specifically reported that her son was diagnosed with autism. Another child is reportedly suffering from serious thyroid problems and hair loss. The plaintiffs’ allegations in this action appear consistent with reports from other affected families. In a survey, approximately 2,000 people reported health impacts including fatigue, headaches, and skin irritation. Furthermore, 17 people reported being hospitalized.

The plaintiffs themselves allege that they experienced gastrointestinal issues, brain fog, horrible migraines, swollen organs, rashes, infections, and vertigo. One plaintiff reported experiencing reactivation of a dormant seizure disorder and began having multiple seizures a day. An additional plaintiff reported having blood in her urine and excessive menstrual bleeding. Thereafter, a physician diagnosed her with a benign cyst on her kidney, a cyst on her breast, and a teratoma tumor on her ovary. In addition, she had three legions removed from the colon and esophagus bone.

Despite the Navy’s filtration and cleaning efforts, many residents report that their symptoms persist, even those that have moved away. The residents that returned to their homes are still concerned that fuel could be trapped in the soil, rock, and water below the tunnels, which can cause ongoing health and safety issues.

The Resulting Litigation

On August 31, 2022, four military families, who consumed and were allegedly affected by the contaminated water in the Red Hill Shaft, filed suit against the federal government in the United States District Court of Hawaii. The plaintiffs accuse the federal government of negligence,  nuisance, medical negligence, failure to treat and delayed care, and infliction of emotional distress.

According to the plaintiffs, federal officers breached a duty to exercise reasonable care in the operation and maintenance of the Red Hill Facility, which was the direct and proximate cause of the plaintiffs’ injuries. In addition, according to the plaintiffs, the federal government interfered with the plaintiffs’ right to use and enjoy their properties by allowing fuel to leak from the storage facility into the water well, contaminating the water delivered to the plaintiffs’ properties. Further, the plaintiffs allege that the federal government failed to treat and monitor the plaintiffs’ conditions. The plaintiffs claim the government failed to adhere to acceptable standards of medical care. Finally, according to the plaintiffs, the actions of the federal government caused worry, anxiety, anguish, suffering, and grief.

Negligence

The plaintiffs complained that government personnel at the Red Hill Facility made negligent errors that released thousands of gallons of jet fuel and other contaminants into the drinking water of families on the Navy water line and failed to disclose leaks as required. According to the plaintiffs, the Navy ignored its duty of care pursuant to specific statutes, regulations, and orders.

In addition, according to the plaintiffs, federal personnel failed to provide appropriate medical care to the families affected by the contaminated water, which compounded the injuries that the Navy caused by the fuel leak. The plaintiffs allege that when they reported to the military healthcare facilities, the medical care did not meet the standard of care for exposure to jet fuel. According to the plaintiffs, the standard of care requires a neuropsychological assessment, baseline labs, and imaging such as x-rays or EKGs. The plaintiffs complain that they were denied labs and testing at the initial visits to the military healthcare facilities.

The plaintiffs seek damages for:

  • Past and future physical pain and suffering
  • Mental anguish
  • Medical expenses
  • Lost income and earning capacity
  • Physical impairment
  • Loss of enjoyment and quality of life
  • Loss of enjoyment of property
  • Nuisance damages
  • Out-of-pocket expenses
  • Loss of personal property

The Response from the Navy

Following the incidents on May 6 and November 20, the Navy initially denied reports of a fuel leak into the drinking water supply. It was not until November 27, 2021, when testing confirmed petroleum products in the Red Hill Shaft, that the Navy decided to temporarily suspend the use of the fuel tank facility and relocate the affected families.

After testing revealed petroleum products in the Red Hill Shaft, the Navy initiated mitigation efforts. First, the Navy advised residents to run their water and flush their toilets to remove contaminants. However, many families reported that the flushing made the smell of fuel more pungent and exacerbated their symptoms. The Navy then opened water hydrants to flush the contaminants, However, the Navy inadvertently flushed contaminated water into residential streets, yards, and storm drains. On December 2, 2021, the government authorized evacuation and lodging expenses for affected families. The Navy estimated that the contaminated water complications displaced nearly 3,200 families from military housing into temporary housing.

In January 2022, the department of health approved a plan for the Navy to remove up to five million gallons of treated water from the Red Hill Shaft well. The plan requires the Navy to extract the contaminated water from the Red Hill Shaft, send the water through a filtration system, and release the water into the Halawa Stream in Honolulu. This plan was designed to prevent contaminated water from migrating into other parts of the groundwater aquifer.

The Response from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

In response to the contamination, which has affected approximately 93,000 Navy water system users, the EPA announced that over the next two years, the Navy is required to continue testing and cleaning the affected drinking water, soil, and groundwater. In addition, the EPA, the Navy, the Army, and the department of health formed an Interagency Drinking Water System Team to restore safe drinking water to the affected residents. 

The Future of The Red Hill Water Contamination Litigation

Fuel leaks are not uncommon. In fact, the Red Hill Facility has leaked approximately 180,000 gallons of fuel since the 1940s. Many local activists are raising awareness around the Red Hill fuel leaks and its impact on the clean drinking water of the residents. The heightened awareness is empowering other affected families to publicly share their experiences and file additional claims. More specifically, the Navy reports that it has received 186 claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act from families allegedly affected by the Red Hill Facility fuel leak.

Although service members were among those impacted by the fuel leak, they are barred from suing the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

Potential Expert Specialties at Trial

The upcoming litigation in this matter will involve issues related to whether the Navy was negligent in its operation and maintenance of the Red Hill Facility and whether the Navy was negligent in its response to the fuel leak into the Red Hill Shaft. In addition, this case will involve issues related to negligent medical treatment and the impacts of such negligent medical treatment. Finally, this case will also likely involve exploring the environmental and health impacts—short-term and long-term—from the fuel leak.

Potential expert specialties at trial may include experts who can speak on the operation and maintenance of a fuel storage facility, including how to conduct a proper fuel transfer procedure and how to respond to improperly executed procedures. Other potential experts may include those who can opine on the composition and the effects of petroleum products. Additional expert specialties include experts who can testify to the environmental clean-up after toxic exposures and remediating and restoring wells. Other potential expert specialties include medical experts with experience treating patients that have consumed the specific fuel stored in the Red Hill facility.

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