Home » Victims of Navy jet fuel contamination in Hawaii seek justice
Defence Featured Global News Hawaii Lifestyle Military News

Victims of Navy jet fuel contamination in Hawaii seek justice

Trial for the case brought by military families who became ill after ingesting water contaminated by jet fuel will begin Monday.

Over two years after hundreds of families near Pearl Harbor-Hickam base in Honolulu reported jet fuel in their tap water back in 2021, the victims of the Red Hill contamination will have their day in federal court on Monday.

Over 7,500 plaintiffs fault the U.S. Navy for allowing jet fuel to infiltrate an essential natural water source on the island and are seeking damages for the resulting health issues and lost income. The plaintiffs — most of them family members of active military members living along the Navy’s own water system — say the government failed to properly maintain the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.

In November 2021, hundreds of families living around the Pearl Harbor-Hickam base on Oahu reported smelling and seeing an oily substance in their tap water.

Military officials initially denied any issues with the water, as evidenced in recorded testimonies and memos from the time. However, residents began experiencing health impacts before the military acknowledged the presence of petroleum in the water.

Navy officials did not confirm that jet fuel had leaked into their water line until weeks later.

Around 93,000 families were affected, many of them hospitalized and relocated in the wake of the crisis. Symptoms included dizziness, brain fog, disorientation, rashes, nausea, vomiting, and burning in the esophagus. Many victims continue to suffer from these effects more than two and half years later.

“The water is still not safe, as residents across the affected area continue to report seeing fuel sheens,” said attorney Kristina Baehr, representing victims of the Red Hill fuel crisis, at a news conference the week before trial is set to begin Monday. She said that recent testing detected another spike, though the Navy claimed it was a false positive from chlorine used to disinfect the water.

An investigation conducted by the Navy in 2021 after the crisis found that a “pressure surge event” had caused a pipeline rupture and spill of over 19,000 gallons of jet fuel into the Red Hill drinking water system shaft. 

November 2021 isn’t the first time the fuel tanks have leaked.

Over 200 documented leaks have been reported since the facility’s construction during World War II, with estimate of at least 180,000 gallons lost, according to reports presented at the 2024 American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting held earlier this month.

The first major leak the Navy occurred in 2014, where around 27,000 gallons of jet fuel from the Red Hill eaked from the tanks causing groundwater contamination. The leak — caused by hundreds of holes in one of the tanks — occurred just 100 feet above one of Oahu’s main aquifers, posing a significant risk to the water supply.

“The facility can hold up to 250 million gallons total, and sits just 100 feet above the sole source aquifer for the island of Oahu,” said Red Hill Task Force team member Tara Sutton at the meeting. “Leaks have been documented by the Navy as early as 1947, resulting in an unknown amount of environmental intoxication.”

Constructed in haste during the 1940s to support World War II efforts, the Red Hill fuel storage facility was never meant to be a permanent depot. Eight decades later, the tanks are now in a state of disrepair and heavily corroded with rust, far exceeding their original temporary design.

“The Navy is failing to accept the reality of the facts presented: these tanks are too far gone to be saved,” said Marti Townsend, former Director for the Sierra Club of Hawaii in a 2018 press release. “The Navy is unwilling or unable to invest the funds necessary to upgrade these fuel tanks to ensure our groundwater is protected, so their only real option is to retire the tanks and relocate the fuel away from our water.”

Despite the Navy’s previous position that the Red Hill tanks could have continued running with adequate upkeep, analysis of the actual tank samples does not support this conclusion.

“These are eighty year old war material tanks that have been actively corroding almost the entire time, the leaks are now being estimated as up to 2 million gallons of fuel over the past eights years. The Navy’s done risk assessments showing that its expected to release 5,000 gallons of fuel a year, or fifty thousand gallons a decade,” current Sierra Club director Wayne Tanaka commented in an interview with Courthouse News Service.

The University of Hawaii Manoa’s Economic Research Organization found in a study that in the aftermath of the Red Hill water crisis, public satisfaction of the Navy’s handling of disaster was significantly lower when compared to other federal and state institutions.

After public outcry, the facility was officially defueled in March, with 104 million gallons removed. Environmental remediation and monitoring efforts are ongoing, with pressure from Hawaii officials.

“I’m glad that the Navy finally acknowledged after all these years that this facility is a ticking time bomb, it has no place being operated just a hundred feet above our drinking water,” Tanaka said. ” However, I’m very concerned at their lack of transparency and the continued lack of candor and, and their continued gaslighting of people who are sick, many of them being servicemen and their families.

Of the upcoming trial, Tanaka said “I hope it sends a message that there are real consequences for neglecting frail resources and neglecting the safety of communities.”