New Red Hill legal filing alleges water contamination contained antifreeze

The latest filing in the Red Hill fuel leak legal case alleges that the Navy did not disclose all of the contaminants that leaked into residents’ drinking water.
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Fuels director, LCDR Shannon Bencs walks a portion of the seven (7) miles of tunnels of the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility, 2020. (U.S. Navy/Daniel Mayberry/Released)

On at least two occasions in 2021, in May and November of that year, there were leaks from the Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Hawaii that contaminated drinking water for thousands of military personnel and their families. A new court filing from Monday now alleges that there were additional toxins in the contaminated water. 

“While the United States eventually identified JP5,” reads the filing, “The government failed to notify the plaintiffs or warn about antifreeze or other additives to the JP5 that are harmful in their own right.”

The filing also alleges the government claims it had no reason to warn residents of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam about the fuel leaks or the risks they posed to the water those residents used daily. 

An internal memo from the Hawaii Department of Health published on February 2, and given to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser by lawyers representing military families involved in an ongoing lawsuit over the fuel leak, found water samples collected in the weeks following the November fuel leak also contained diethylene glycol, a chemical compound used in aviation fuel to prevent the formation of ice crystals. 

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According to the memo, diethylene glycol “could pose the most significant health risk from exposure to contaminated water.”

“This amended lawsuit adds to the story of a government that poisoned its people, failed to treat them, and told sick families they were not sick,” said Kristina Baehr, a lawyer for the families, in a press release. “The fight goes on to hold the government accountable for its conduct before, during and after the Red Hill contamination. These families still do not know what exactly was in the water they ingested and bathed in for months.”

The Red Hill facility was constructed during World War II, with 20 steel-lined tanks capable of holding up to 250 million gallons of fuel, and pipelines running to the piers at Pearl Harbor. It was used by all branches of the military. 

On May 6, 2021, what was initially reported as 1,618 gallons of jet fuel leaked into Red Hill’s fire suppression system. An investigation found that the leak was caused by “operator error,” but also revised the estimate of how much fuel had leaked to 19,000 gallons. In November, a second leak occurred, and “triggered a catastrophic spill that injected jet fuel into the Red Hill well, the drinking water source for the plaintiffs,” according to the initial lawsuit filed in 2022. 

Families soon began complaining about a chemical sheen and oily water, and while the base commander initially said there were “no immediate indications that the water is not safe,” the Hawaii Department of Health soon advised that military families stop using tap water for cooking, bathing or oral hygiene. Other families soon revealed  they had been experiencing symptoms including “dizziness, nausea, fatigue, headaches, diarrhea” after consuming the contaminated water. Around 93,000 people total were served by the Navy’s water system at the time of the leaks, according to the Associated Press. 

A class-action lawsuit on behalf of the families affected by the fuel leak was filed in August 2022. In November of that year, the Navy announced that it planned to decommission the Red hill facility by 2027. 

The Navy did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest legal filing. 

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