The Justice Department admitted a Navy jet fuel leak in Hawaii caused thousands to suffer injuries. Now, victims are suing the government.

US

The U.S. government, in what an attorney says is a “monumental admission,” said last year that it caused injury to thousands of people on the Hawaiian island of Oahu when jet fuel from its storage facility leaked into the drinking water system. On Monday, thousands of military family members and locals are headed to trial seeking financial compensation. 

Kristina Baehr, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the case, said her firm has 7,500 clients suing over the leak. Monday’s proceedings kick off a bellwether trial, meaning it’s a smaller consolidation of lawsuits taken from a larger group. 

The case dates back to the week of Thanksgiving in 2021, when nearly 20,000 gallons of jet fuel leaked out of the World War II-era Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility and into the water system that serves about 93,000 people near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on Oahu. Military officials for days denied there was anything wrong with the water, as seen in recorded testimony and memos sent from that time. 

By the time the military acknowledged there was petroleum in the water, people had already begun feeling the health impacts, many of which are still being experienced today — more than 2 1/2 years later

In May 2023, the government made what Baehr says were “monumental admissions” about the crisis. Along with admitting liability for negligence at the storage facility, she said the government also “admitted that residents on the water line in November 2021 suffered injury.” 

In a court-filed joint stipulation dated May 10, 2023, attorneys for the Department of Justice said “the United States does not dispute” that the 2021 spill “caused a nuisance for those Plaintiffs who owned or leased residences” that were eventually subject to a state Department of Health advisory. 

The DOJ also says in the document that it “does not dispute that…the United States breached its duty of care to the Resident Plaintiffs to exercise ordinary care in the operation of Red Hill” and that, as a result of the “nuisance,” plaintiffs “suffered injuries compensable under the Federal Tort Claims Act.” 

What the Justice Department hasn’t admitted, Baehr said, is the extent of the harm or that the government failed to warn residents.

Baehr told CBS News that many of her thousands of clients experienced the same symptoms at the beginning of the leak: dizziness, brain fog, disorientation, rashes, nausea, vomiting and burning in the esophagus. 

Years later, many have spent countless hours in hospitals and are still suffering from the impacts. 

Tainted Water Hawaii-Rally
Hawaii’s U.S. Rep. Ed Case, right, attends a rally calling for the shutdown of the Navy’s Red Hill underground fuel tanks as a man holds a photo of an infant who had chemical burns after bathing in fuel contaminated water, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022 in Honolulu. 

Caleb Jones / AP


Victims of jet fuel exposure say their lives have “forever been drastically changed”

Jamie Simic, whose then-husband was a senior chief petty officer in the Navy when the leak occurred, is one of the three individuals specifically named as plaintiffs in the case. Before it was confirmed the water was contaminated, she said her children refused to brush their teeth. 

“My daughter’s teeth were crumbling out of her head. They were saying we couldn’t taste toothpaste anymore… that they were tasting something foul,” she said, adding that the day military officials confirmed there was something wrong with the water, she was “throwing up while cooking dinner” from the fumes and wear. 

“I went to the fridge to grab out some ice from my freezer and my ice was pure yellow and it had an oily film,” she said. “I put it up to my nose and I could smell fuel.” 

The smell of fuel was on everything that came into contact with water, from dishes to laundry, Simic said. At the direction of the military, she and her family went to Tripler Army Medical Center, but she said that while there, they at first were given only “a piece of paper to write down your symptoms.” 

“There was no form. There was no doctor. There was no blood pressure taken. There was nothing,” she said. 

Meanwhile, she says she and her kids, now 11 and 10, have experienced issues with their teeth, incontinence and throat problems, while she has also dealt with reproductive issues. In an amended complaint filed in December 2022, attorneys said her family had to make more than 20 visits to doctors and undergo two biopsies and three surgeries. Some procedures her son needed that year “were thwarted because their son was too traumatized to cooperate,” the complaint says. 

When CBS News spoke with Simic on Wednesday, she said the number of procedures and visits are now, “well over 300 to 400.” In many of these visits, she said doctors stated the problems she and her family are experiencing are related to the jet fuel exposure.  

“We have been diagnosed with chronic hydrocarbon toxicity exposure more than once,” she said. “My daughter’s issues were just recently linked to it with her bowels. ‘To environmental exposure in Hawaii’ is what her records say.” 

And the toll isn’t just physical, it’s an immense financial burden. Simic’s grandmother has given the family almost $40,000 to help with related expenses, she said. 

“Just tomorrow alone, probably going to be spending $250 to $300 on travel with one specialty appointment, the copay, and then both of my children’s primary care manager appointments.”

25th Division Sustainment Brigade Support to Task Force Ohana
Task Force Ohana Soldiers fill containers with potable water for Aliamanu Military Reservation residents (AMR) at a water supply point at AMR on Dec. 15th, 2021 at AMR, Hawaii. 

Sgt. 1st Class Richard Lower/DVIDS


Mai Hall, who is Native Hawaiian and a military spouse, lived in military-provided housing with her husband and two kids at the time of the jet fuel leak. Speaking to CBS News in March 2023, she said her family started experiencing symptoms quickly.

“The next day it became apparent with the headaches, the nausea, bloody stools. … The cats were vomiting. I was like, ‘Oh my God, we’re gonna die,'” she told CBS News. “…We knew something was wrong. It was kind of like post-apocalyptic.” 

When families first started notifying military officials their water had developed a strange taste and smell, their “concerns were not being heard,” Hall said.

“It must have been a week, six to seven days, before they said, ‘Oh yeah, by the way, there may have been fuel that leaked into the water,'” she told CBS News. “…And it was just an email. It wasn’t even a phone call. It wasn’t a knock on the door.” 

Records show that Navy drinking water supervisor Joe Nehl said on Nov. 28, 2021, he received confirmation there was fuel in the water system and said he “called for help” and agreed it was obvious people needed to know of the situation. 

However, it wasn’t until a town hall on December 5 that officials first stated publicly there was fuel from the leak in the water. Prior, they had issued statements saying there was “no indication water is not safe.” 

screenshot-2024-04-24-at-8-07-31-pm.png
A message from December 5, 2021, posted on JBPHH’s official Facebook page, in which Joint Base Commander Erik Spitzer says water testing results showed the water was not safe to drink after jet fuel leaked from the Red Hill Bulk Storage Facility. 

Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam/Facebook


A November 30 communication plan from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam CBS News obtained shows officials were told to say, “There do not appear to be any indications that the water is unsafe” and, “We have not heard of any injuries.” 

“I just have to trust the system,” Hall told CBS News. “And do I trust the system? No, I don’t.” 

Baehr and Simic say this ordeal, as detrimental as it has been to those impacted, is also a story of resilience and hope. 

“All we can get from the case is financial compensation. But financial compensation is what brings accountability,” Baehr told CBS News. “…These families took on the United States of America and won. And now it’s a question of damages.”

“Our lives have already forever been drastically changed,” Simic said. “…We’re already victorious in the Navy admitting the harm. We just need to be victorious in them admitting the long-term harm so families such as mine can continue to heal and get better and have the quality of life that was taken from us.” 

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