Hundreds of people are still reporting health problems a year after jet fuel contaminated the Navy water system in Hawaii, according to a new report based on a survey by Hawaii state officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Of the 986 people who participated in the follow-up survey in September, 80% reported health symptoms in the previous 30 days, and two-thirds of those people said they were highly or very highly confident that their symptoms were related to the water contamination. The Hawaii Department of Health and the CDC conducted the follow-up survey, and the Hawaii agency released the report Nov. 8. About 90% of the survey participants were affiliated with the Department of Defense.
The survey was a follow-up to one the two agencies conducted early this year. It found that 87% of the 2,289 participants reported new or worsened symptoms after the November 2021 fuel leak at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility that contaminated the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Navy water system.
According to the current survey’s findings, 55% reported worse physical health and 50% reported worse mental health after the fuel incident, compared to before. Of those surveyed, 85% are still using a different water source for drinking. A more detailed report on the findings will be published at a later date, officials said.
The most commonly reported symptoms of those surveyed include headache, anxiety, dry or itchy skin, fatigue and difficulty sleeping.
More families join lawsuit
Meanwhile, another 100 people have been added to the lawsuit against the Navy, which was filed in Hawaii federal court in August. Initially there were four families; now there are 31. One of the four original families has since dropped out of the group lawsuit.
The families allege the military’s negligence caused the release of fuel that contaminated their drinking water in Hawaii and sickened their families, and that it failed to provide adequate medical care.
The federal court has set a trial date of Jan. 29, 2024.
Medical care continues to be a critical issue for the families.
“While these families suffer, Navy officials continue to claim that families are not sick from their exposure to jet fuel, with medical gaslighting at the highest levels,” the amended complaint alleges. “Up to now, military officials have denied ongoing medical harm to service members, their families or civilians.”
The lawsuit alleges the Navy has denied the families “even the most basic standard of care when they turned to military medical providers for help. Military facilities recorded symptoms but failed to run standard labs to check liver function, kidney function and complete blood count.”
This amended complaint adds another accusation: that the Navy destroyed the water sample vials collected from more than 1,000 family homes in the initial days of the water crisis — samples which could have revealed what chemicals were in each family’s water.
“This destruction of the evidence has robbed plaintiffs of the opportunity to know what was in their water,” the complaint alleges.
Since early on in the water crisis, military families have been asking Navy officials for reports on the analyses of the water samples from their homes, taken after the fuel smells and sicknesses were evident, and before the Navy began flushing the homes and water system to remove contaminants.
Navy officials had not commented on the allegations by publication time. When the initial lawsuit was filed, Navy officials said they don’t comment on ongoing litigation.
This is the first federal lawsuit filed against the government in conjunction with the water crisis, which affected about 100,000 people — from Navy, Army and Air Force families — on the Navy water line. The lawsuit alleges negligence in at least two separate events — May 6 and Nov. 21, 2021 — at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. The Navy has since admitted operator error. The government has also drained the fuel storage facility to shut it down.
Initially, the Navy dismissed families’ concerns, the lawsuit alleges. After the Navy acknowledged the water was contaminated by jet fuel, the families were given the option to move to hotels at government expense, where they stayed for months as the Navy conducted extensive flushing operations. But a number of families have contended that they immediately became sick again after returning to their homes.
The amended lawsuit details the many symptoms of the family members, and includes updates on the four original families in the lawsuit.
In the 71 days after the initial filing of the lawsuit, for example, the Feindt family of four has had more than 80 doctor appointments, five procedures requiring sedation and two major surgeries. Their 2-year-old son has a persistent cough, and problems with his lungs that leave him gasping for air, according to the suit. He has been to pulmonary surgery for anesthesia and testing.
“Our legal team is working hard to hold the Navy accountable for its conduct before, during and after the Red Hill contamination,” said attorney Kristina S. Baehr.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.