More than 100 families have filed claims against the government for illnesses and out-of-pocket expenses they say are related to drinking fuel-tainted water in their homes at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
A November fuel spill forced thousands from their homes at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and other military housing neighborhoods near Honolulu.
Attorneys announced Friday that 102 families are looking for compensation for health conditions and financial harm caused by the spills at the U.S. Navy's Red Hill fuel storage facility.
In a letter to Vice Adm. Darse Crandall, the Navy's judge advocate general, attorneys with Just Well Law of Austin, Texas, and Hosoda Law Group of Honolulu, said the Navy failed to act after a fuel spill last May and has not "fully disclosed the scope of the contamination," including a second spill in November.
"When the Navy learned of the operator error on May 6, 2021 that released thousands of gallons of jet fuel into the Red Hill well, the Navy should have told our clients to stop drinking the water," wrote attorneys Kristina Baehr, James Baehr and Lyle Hosoda. "Instead, the Navy allowed families to continue to bathe and drink water until the contamination became so severe -- after another spill in November -- that it burned their throats and bodies."
Residents began reporting a gasoline-like odor and oily sheen in their tap water Nov. 28, saying the contamination caused symptoms such as headache, rashes, nausea and vomiting.
But the attorneys allege that their clients' symptoms began developing before the November spill and attributed their illnesses to the May spill, as well as other events at the fuel facility, which sits in close proximity to wells that supply water to a number of military residential areas in and around Hawaii.
The families are seeking compensation under the Federal Tort Claims Act, a law that allows individuals to file for compensation for injuries or damages resulting from negligence or wrongdoing by the federal government or a government employee.
In their letter, the attorneys highlighted several cases, including an Army officer who developed blurred vision, headaches and abdominal issues, as well as skin cancers, and has been forced to relocate.
"Lt. Col. Jeff Fritz proudly served our country for 26 years. ... He was forced to give up a job he loved and move away from the contamination, spending tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket to do so," the letter said.
Meredith Wilson, a professional singer who is married to a service member, began struggling with migraines, abdominal pain and vision issues -- symptoms her physicians suspected were the result of environmental exposure and for which they "encouraged her to drink more water to help with her symptoms."
"She was devastated to learn about the contaminated water when her home 'smelled like a gas station,'" the attorneys wrote. "After a number of abnormal medical tests following the exposure, Meredith made the heartbreaking decision to leave the island and her career that she loved."
The attorneys say the Navy's "lack of transparency" on the contamination continues, with the service refusing to release the drinking water test results from their homes in November and December, before the pipes were flushed as part of cleanup operations.
"Although we know the levels of hydrocarbons were high, the Navy chooses to leave these families in the dark as to the extent of their toxic exposure," they wrote.
Air quality tests, conducted by an environmental testing contractor hired by the attorneys, reported that, between Feb. 21 and April 15, 20 homes showed elevated levels of various volatile organic compounds such as acetone, toluene, ethanol and ethyl acetate.
High levels of toluene, which was found in 14 homes -- including one with nearly 10 times the limit that would trigger a health department response -- can cause short-term health problems including fatigue, sleepiness and nausea, as well as long-term damage to the central nervous system, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Many of our clients are now suffering from long-term effects, including seizure disorders, thyroid abnormalities, liver damage, kidney damage, baby loss, cognitive challenges, loss of movement, and cancer," the attorneys wrote.
When asked to explain the inclusion of cancer -- diseases that can take months or years to develop after an environmental exposure -- in the list, Kristina Baehr said in an email that experts hired by the firm "will show that this period of exposure (May-November 2021) caused or exacerbated" their clients' cancers.
"We acknowledge, of course, that the water was contaminated by earlier spills and that earlier contamination may also have contributed to their disease," Baehr wrote to Military.com.
The Department of Defense announced March 7 that the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility will be emptied and closed. At the time, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the facility had served its purpose for decades but shutting it was "the right thing to do."
In a statement Monday, the service's chief of information, Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, told Military.com that the Navy "will not discuss any potential future legal actions."
With the filings, the Navy has six months to negotiate with the plaintiffs on the claims. If the service does not respond or fails to reach an agreement, the plaintiffs can then file a lawsuit.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime