More than 4,600 military family members and civilians have filed legal claims against the U.S. over illnesses they say were caused by consuming and bathing in water tainted with jet fuel at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, according to their attorneys.
The number of claimants over fuel spills at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility in 2021 has nearly tripled in the past three months, a reflection that those affected by the spills believe the Navy is serious about making amends, said attorney Kristina Baehr of the Austin, Texas, firm Just Well Law.
Baehr said that the government has accepted responsibility for the accident and is not contesting that it was negligent in the November 2021 spill of roughly 5,000 gallons of jet fuel that contaminated a portion of the drinking water supply to the base and nearby facilities.
"I don't want to give the government too much credit," Baehr said Monday during an interview with Military.com. "But the government is not contesting that it's liable. That's historic. We are not aware of any case of this magnitude and certainly not an environmental case, where the government has accepted liability."
The leak affected roughly 93,000 residents of the installation, sending thousands to hotels and elsewhere or forcing residents to use only bottled water in their homes. Shortly after the spill, residents complained of headaches, stomach upset, neurological problems, rashes, skin lesions and other symptoms.
Nearly two years later, some say they still experience seizures, thyroid issues, migraines and more, according to a lawsuit filed against the government.
The 4,673 claims, filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act, represent the first step in potential litigation against the federal government over the leak. Military families and civilians who believe they were harmed by the spill have until Nov. 20, the event's two-year anniversary, to file a claim.
The Federal Tort Claims Act allows civilians, including military family members, who are hurt or injured as the result of government action or negligence to file an administrative claim within two years of an event.
If the claim is denied, they may proceed with a lawsuit.
In the case of the Red Hill spill, the claimants would become part of a suit filed last August by Patrick Feindt, the husband of Army Maj. Mandy Feindt, who is seeking compensation for physical ailments he and his family continue to experience as a result of the exposure, as well as for emotional distress and financial hardship endured when his family requested reassignment from Hawaii.
This week, as part of the Feindt case, the U.S. District Court of Hawaii will hold a hearing considering the federal government's request to strike witness testimony from medical experts in the case.
Following several accidents at the Red Hill facility, including a spill in May 2021 of 20,000 gallons of jet fuel that precipitated the November spill, the Defense Department is shuttering the fuel depot at a cost of roughly $120 million.
The Defense Department notified Congress last week that the facility's closure will not affect training or operations in the Indo-Pacific region and that the effort to dismantle Red Hill would proceed.
The Navy has scheduled defueling to begin Oct. 16, with completion expected by January.
During a press conference Sept. 12, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon's spokesman, said the notification, done to comply with the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, underscores the department's commitment to closing the fuel farm.
"This achievement reflects the department's ongoing commitment to defuel and ultimately close the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility while upholding our responsibility to ensure the readiness of our armed forces," Ryder said.
Baehr said that, while the Navy has accepted liability for the spill, it has not yet moved forward with adjudicating any of the claims already filed under the federal tort law. According to Baehr, 67% of her clients have ongoing health issues related to the tainted water.
"The government has accepted liability and admitted to negligence, but it has never accepted ... that there has been long-term medical harm," Baehr said.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com.