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The U.S. Navy is facing scrutiny now that new details have emerged about a fuel spill that poisoned the water at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam last year. A military investigation released in July found that officials told families the water was safe to drink even though it tasted like fuel. Servicemembers and their families reported symptoms like diarrhea, cramps, nausea, and fatigue. About 93,000 people were affected by the contamination, and about 6,000 reported adverse symptoms.

The incident is reminiscent of a similar water contamination crisis that began nearly 70 years ago. For three decades, military members and civilians at the Camp Lejeune military base in North Carolina drank water contaminated by volatile organic chemicals. When the toxic exposure became publicly known, it was too late. Thousands of victims developed Parkinson’s disease, aplastic anemia, and various types of cancer. Thanks to legislation passed earlier this year, they now have the ability to file Camp Lejeune lawsuits against the federal government for damages.  

Historically, service members can only recover compensation for injuries through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Camp Lejeune Justice Act carved out an exception for people who became ill after toxic water exposure on the base. 

Water Contamination at Joint Base Pearl Harbor

In May 2021, workers spilled more than 19,000 gallons of fuel during a tank transfer at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. The fuel landed in a fire suppression system fluid drain pipeline, where it stayed until the drain pipeline ruptured in November 2021. 

The team who cleaned the spill thought it was contained, but thousands of gallons still seeped into the Red Hill drinking water well that served the homes and offices around the Hawaii base. The military temporarily suspended work at Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility but didn’t share the potential health concern with the public. As military families complained of water that tasted and smelled like fuel, officials reassured them that there was nothing to worry about. 

U.S. Navy officials detailed what went wrong in a 234-page report released this summer. 

During a critical period when military officials could have conveyed the contamination’s severity, they minimized the potential risk. In November, then-base commander Capt. Erik Spitzer told servicemembers that he was still drinking the water. He later publicly apologized. Soon after, thousands of military families were relocated to temporary housing. The petroleum levels in the water were 350 times higher than safe levels.

Environmentalists and state government officials have long voiced worries about the fuel storage facility. It’s close to the water plants that supply Oahu with drinking water, and a leak could be catastrophic for Hawaiians. The state ordered the military to close the facility, and the Navy challenged the order. Earlier this year, Pentagon officials instructed the Navy to shut down Red Hill permanently, but this likely isn’t the last we’ll hear of water contamination on military bases. The Navy report concluded that the fuel leak might not be an isolated incident. One line of the report says, “we cannot assume Red Hill represents an outlier, and similar problems may exist at other locations.”

Meanwhile, the families who drank and bathed in contaminated water at the Pearl Harbor base still struggle to believe that their water supply is safe. Fuel ingestion can cause irreversible lung damage, seizures, and esophagitis. Some people needed hospitalization because the water left them with severe health symptoms, and the long-term effects of fuel exposure are still unknown. Those exposed could develop health conditions in months or even years. In the case of Camp Lejeune water contamination, victims often didn’t show symptoms immediately and received diagnoses much later.

The U.S. Navy had a duty to warn servicemembers and their families about potential toxic exposure and failed to do so. If you or someone you know has been affected by water contamination, you should talk to an attorney about your potential legal options. For more information on water contamination lawsuits, contact Childers, Schlueter & Smith toll-free at 1-800-641-0098.

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