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Military families sue federal government over Red Hill fuel leak

Radioactivity warning sign on a hill at the east end of Red Forest. (Photo by Timm Suess, Wikimedia Commons/Released)

Military families who say they were sickened by last year’s fuel contamination of the Navy’s drinking water system around Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam are suing the federal government, seeking compensation for physical and mental suffering, medical expenses, lost income and other costs associated with the Red Hill disaster.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court Wednesday on behalf of four families that are being represented by Kristina Baehr, an attorney with Just Well Law, based in Austin, Texas, and Honolulu attorney Lyle Hosoda. Additional plaintiffs are expected to be added to the lawsuit as a six-month mandatory waiting period that requires families to first seek administrative relief expires. Baehr has said that her law firm represents about 150 affected families.

The plaintiffs only include the families of service members. Members of the military are barred from suing the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The Navy in a statement Wednesday said it does not discuss details or provide status updates on specific claims.

“The Navy is focused on ensuring the safety and health of those impacted from the November 2021 fuel spill, ” the Navy’s statement reads. “Nothing is more important than the health, safety, and well-­being of our people, their families, and our community neighbors. Providing clean, safe, drinking water to our families and communities, and ensuring their continued health and safety concerns are addressed are our highest priorities.”

In November, hundreds of families on the Navy’s drinking water system began reporting fuel odors coming from their taps and said they were getting sick with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, burning and itching skin and rashes. Navy and state health officials subsequently confirmed what many already suspected—that fuel from the Navy’s underground Red Hill fuel facility had contaminated the drinking water. The polluted drinking water well sits just 2, 400 feet downslope from the tanks, which have a long history of leaks.

The families suing the federal government all say that in addition to the immediate health effects they suffered at the time of the contamination, they’ve continued to suffer numerous maladies.

Mandy Feindt, a major in the U.S. Army, and her husband Patrick lived in Ford Island military housing with their two young children at the time of last year’s fuel contamination. The Feindts say they all began suffering gastrointestinal symptoms in November from consuming the water. They say their health problems have persisted. Patrick Feindt has undergone five medical procedures and experienced internal bleeding as doctors struggle to find a cause, according to the lawsuit, which says he is also suffering from debilitating pain in his abdomen and the side of his body.

Their children have had behavioral changes, according to the lawsuit. Mandy Feindt, while not a plaintiff, said that she has also suffered from other unexplained symptoms, such as hearing loss, that she believes are related to the water. She said that prior to the fuel contamination, she and and her husband had been healthy. “I had like a rock-hard immune system, ” she told the Honolulu Star-­Advertiser.

Mandy Feindt said that she didn’t know about the history of leaks at Red Hill prior to moving to Hawaii. In the days after the November water contamination, she said, her family continued to drink the water amid assurances from the military that her neighborhood was likely unaffected.

“Hawaii was paradise.

It was the dream location.

It was the dream assignment, ” said Mandy Feindt, who has since moved with her family to Colorado.

In retrospect, she said that all of the warning signs were there of a pending disaster tied to the facility constructed eight decades ago, amid World War II.

“The unimaginable did happen. It happened to us, ” she said.

Plaintiff Nastasia Freeman lived with her husband, who is in the Navy, and three children at the Aliamanu Military Reservation. She had a preexisting seizure disorder, but it had been dormant prior to the water contamination, according to the lawsuit. She says she subsequently began having multiple seizures a day and has since suffered from a long list of other health problems, including blood in her urine, calcifications on her bladder wall and lesions on her brain.

Her children are also having health problems, according to the lawsuit, which says her children had abnormal lab results in August relating to liver, kidney and pancreas function.

The lawsuit alleges that the military provided inadequate medical care and providers refused to order basic blood screening to check for toxic exposure.

“Nastasia Freeman’s medical care has been riddled with mistake, delay, failure to diagnose, and failure to treat, ” according to the lawsuit.

Ariana Wyatt, her husband, who is in the Air Force, and their daughter lived in Earhart Village military housing when their water was contaminated. Ariana Wyatt suffered from migraines, diarrhea, swelling in her right kidney and rashes that covered her face, according to the lawsuit. Her daughter suffered gastrointestinal symptoms, skin and eye irritation, and hair loss. They have both continued to have health problems, according to the lawsuit, including neurological problems.

Ariana Wyatt “had blood in her stool and spends most nights sleeping in an upright position to ease the pain, ” according to the lawsuit. “The brain fog persisted, especially while inside her home. Sometimes it was so bad, Ariana would slur her words. She still experiences nausea and a burning feeling in her stomach. The rash on her face and scalp did not go away while in Hawaii, despite the numerous medications from the dermatologist.”

Jamie Simic, her husband and their children, who lived in the Hale Na Koa neighborhood, are also suing. Jamie Simic says that she has had a long list of health problems as a result of exposure to the water. The lawsuit says that doctors have found multiple cysts, lesions and tumors throughout her body since she fell ill, and her two children have suffered neurological symptoms and respiratory problems among other health effects.

The lawsuit cites a long list of failures by the military to protect the water supply, including its failure to address an earlier May 2021 fuel leak that ultimately led to the November contamination.

“The United States knew that the Red Hill facility has a history of fuel leak water contamination, and that it was probable that additional leaks would occur and cause substantial damage if it did not act, ” according to the lawsuit. “The United States must now pay for the exact consequences that it knew would happen and for which it accepted the risk.”


(c) 2022 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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