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Federal witnesses defend Navy’s Red Hill response

Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks tours the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. (U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Brittany A. Chase/U.S. Department of Defense/TNS)

Hoses snake down the shaft at the Red Hill well as Navy divers work to extract petroleum from the water.

Government witnesses are taking the stand this week to defend the Navy’s response to the Red Hill water crisis and sow doubts about the severity of the contamination as a federal mass tort lawsuit on behalf of affected families continues.

The government’s legal team is arguing that JP-5 jet fuel from the Red Hill fuel facility that entered the Navy’s Oahu water system, which serves 93,000 people, never made its way through the entire system and that some of the plaintiffs were never even exposed.

The government also argues that there wasn’t enough fuel in the system to cause widespread health problems, that there is no definitive evidence that long-term symptoms reported by residents who were on the waterline were the result of JP-5 exposure and that they were actually psychological responses to the stress of the crisis.

The crisis began on Nov. 20, 2021, when fuel spilled at the facility and leaked into the Red Hill water well, which then entered the waterline. Navy officials who responded believed they had contained it and chose not to inform their superiors, state regulators or the public.

In the subsequent days, residents reported strange- smelling water, and in some cases seeing an oily sheen in their water. Many also reported a variety of ailments, including rashes, headaches, diarrhea and vomiting.

The Navy decided to shut down the Red Hill well on Nov. 28 and it finally shut it off completely on Nov. 29. The state Department of Health put out an advisory telling residents not to drink the water, but the Navy put out a release telling the community “there is no immediate indication the water is not safe” and that it was investigating complaints.

Under cross-examination, Dr. Mike McGinnis — who at the time was the Pacific Fleet’s chief medical officer and adviser — defended the statement as accurate, testifying “I am not aware of any positive results on Nov. 29 that the water was not safe.”

Sherri Eng, Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command environmental business line leader and Navy Region Hawaii environmental program manager, testified on Tuesday that her first confirmation of fuel inside the well wasn’t until Dec. 5, when results came back on a sample that was taken from inside the well.

Many of the plaintiffs testified last week that they continued drinking and bathing with tainted water that they were told was safe by Navy officials. That includes plaintiff Patrick Feindt who, along with his wife Army Maj. Mandy Feindt, lived on Ford Island. Even after the Navy did acknowledge fuel in the water, officials later sent a notice that said Ford Island and several other areas weren’t affected. McGinnis testified that he was “not aware of significant reports from Ford Island.”

Walter Grayman, a water systems expert testifying for the government, said on Wednesday that because health complaints didn’t

begin until days after the Nov. 20 spill, that “suggests it didn’t enter the distribution system” until then. He argued that the contamination reached its “plateau” on Nov. 27. But he also argued that the fuel didn’t make its way through the whole system.

In particular, he was adamant that it wouldn’t have reached Ford Island, arguing it was served by a different well. He dismissed the findings of Paul Rosenfeld, an environmental specialist who testified for the plaintiffs and who previously had worked on environmental remediation projects for the Navy in the San Diego area. On Tuesday, before the government began presenting its case, Rosenfeld testified that the Navy’s Oahu waterline is “so interconnected there’s no way to avoid that from happening.”

Rosenfeld said that even after the Red Hill well was shut off, water pumped from the other wells on the system continued to spread JP-5 through the waterline and that the fuel “gummed up” the pipes, arguing that “once it got in the pipes it was just there.”

The Red Hill facility sits just 100 feet above a critical aquifer that most of Honolulu relies on for drinking water. For years, the Navy insisted the World War II-era fuel farm was both safe and critical for national security. The military initially resisted a state emergency order to drain the tanks and sued the state, arguing it lacked legal authority to give the Navy the order.

But in March 2022, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced that Red Hill would be defueled and permanently shuttered. The Pentagon put together a task force of experts from each military branch to defuel the facility, which completed its mission in March. Since then, a new Navy task force has taken over to carry out remediation and closure operations, a process expected to take several years.

In Washington, D.C., in a Wednesday congressional hearing, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz asked Austin about the closure process and treatment for people reporting long-term symptoms from fuel exposure.

“I’ve had personal conversations with both the leader of the task force and most importantly, the secretary of the Navy, on how important this is and they are committed to ensuring that they do the right things to make sure that we get this right going forward,” Austin said. “We owe it to the members of the community to ensure that we do, in fact, do this.”


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