Military families who were sickened after thousands of gallons of jet fuel spilled into Hawaii's drinking water supply have filed a lawsuit alleging the Navy was negligent in preventing and handling the public health crisis, attorneys said Wednesday.
The lawsuit currently lists four families as plaintiffs but others are expected to join, according to Kristina Baehr, an attorney representing some of the plaintiffs. They claim the Navy knew it was not operating Red Hill fuel facility safely and failed to announce the leak in a timely manner.
"Our clients want accountability and truth. ...They know that Red Hill is just the next event in a long legacy of toxic exposures caused by the government," Baehr wrote in an email to Military.com. "They know that their families are at risk of serious future harm, just like the families at Camp LeJeune, and they ask the United States to make it stop."
Last year, the Navy's aging Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility spilled almost 20,000 gallons of fuel total, first during an incident in May and again in November. The initial leak in May caused a build-up in the sumps and pipes at the facility. In November, one of the pipes burst after it was rammed by a worker and the fuel spill contaminated local drinking water, sickening what was estimated to be hundreds of people.
Many families were forced to rely on bottled water and hotel stays for months as the Navy scrambled to clean the water.
"Throughout 2021, as more than 93,000 military service members, their family members and civilians relied on the government for safe water on the island of Oahu," according to the lawsuit complaint filed in a federal Hawaii court on Wednesday. "The Navy harbored toxic secrets."
Furthermore, the families allege federal officers failed to provide appropriate medical care to families, and efforts to flush out the contamination did more harm than good.
The Navy said Wednesday that it could not comment on ongoing litigation but that it remains focused on the health and safety of those in the military community affected by the spill.
"Nothing is more important than the health, safety and well-being of our people, their families and our community neighbors," a Navy spokesperson told Military.com. "Restoring clean, safe, drinking water to our families and communities, and ensuring their continued health and safety concerns are addressed are our highest priorities."
The lawsuit does not include active-duty service members because they are barred from suing the military for injury or illness related to service due to a legal precedent known as the Feres Doctrine. But the families of those service members can file suit, Baehr said.
The lawsuit's legal complaint includes four families as plaintiffs, though Baehr told Military.com that she listed "Jane and John Doe 1-500" to represent the families who could join the lawsuit in the future.
Army Maj. Mandy Feindt's family is among the current and former residents at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam who filed the suit. As an active-duty member, Feindt is barred from suing so her spouse is listed as a plaintiff.
Feindt's family began experiencing unexplained medical symptoms in May 2021, including rashes, headaches and dizziness. In December, following the second spill that contaminated water for thousands of homes on the installation including the Feindts, the entire family went to the emergency room for vomiting, diarrhea and severe abdominal pain.
Their physicians determined they were exposed to the fuel that originated from the Red Hill facility.
The claim against the Navy is a needed step to get the government to acknowledge the scope of the problem and to address it, Feindt said during an interview Tuesday with Military.com
"This is all about accountability and prevention -- preventing this from happening to anyone else. We can't keep poisoning our own people on American soil," Feindt said.
The contamination and mistakes by the military echo what happened at Camp Lejeune, she said. Tainted water at the North Carolina Marine Corps Base affected roughly 1 million residents over 30 years, the extent of which was not acknowledged by the services for decades.
Last week, two U.S. senators and two House members who represent Hawaii wrote a joint letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin relaying that, despite the military's efforts in remedying the disaster, constituents are still calling into their offices with health concerns.
"Despite what the military has done or believes it has done to date to address related health concerns, a concerning and persistent number of service members and their families do not believe it has been enough," according to the letter by Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono, and Reps. Ed Case and Kaiali'I Kahele, who are all Democrats.
Feindt asked for and received a transfer request in April to change duty stations. The family now lives in Colorado, where her husband Patrick Feindt continues to receive medical treatment for migraines and gastrointestinal problems that include internal bleeding.
He has undergone five medical procedures since drinking the tainted water, Mandy Feindt said.
"We went to a different gastroenterologist and told him about the jet fuel but he was very dismissive about it," Feindt said. "Then after looking at Patrick's insides, he was like 'Are you serious about the chemical thing? I thought you were joking.'"
The lawsuit says the families fear potential long-term health issues associated with contaminant ingestion, such as leukemia, renal toxicity, neuro-behavioral effects and cancer. All four of the families who are suing also have children, according to Baehr.
Last month, Baehr, who used to represent the federal government in similar cases, told Military.com during an episode of Fire Watch that her argument revolves around the Federal Tort Claims Act in which individuals can sue federal officers for negligence.
"There were a lot of kids, a lot of families who were affected by the negligence of federal officers at Red Hill and they have a claim against the United States for the harm," she said in July.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.