Five active-duty troops sue over Red Hill fuel spill

The plaintiffs from the Army and Navy report family members falling sick as a result of the 2021 spill in Hawaii.
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Navy Red Hill fuel spill Hawaii
Capt. Bert Hornyak, commanding officer, Naval Supply Systems Command Fleet Logistics Center Pearl Harbor, and Capt. James Meyer, commanding officer, Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Hawaii, give U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael S. Regan a tour of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility on February 23, 2022. (U.S. Navy photo)

Five active-duty service members, including an officer, have sued the U.S. government over the 2021 Red Hill fuel spill in Hawaii.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday, Nov. 8, alleges that the five service members from the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army became sick as a result of drinking water that was contaminated when pipes at Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility on Honolulu ruptured in November 2021, spilling roughly 200,000 gallons of fuel.

The fueling depot, which supplies ships and equipment at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Honolulu, sits above the Southern Oahu Basal Aquifer, the main freshwater source for the island. The spill put approximately 90,000 people, including civilians and military families, at risk from contaminated water. Although the rupture was discovered in November 2021, an investigation found that a spill had started in May of that year.

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The new suit argues that Col. Jessica Whaley, Maj. Amanda Feindt, Chief Warrant Officer Elizabeth Thompson-Watson, Chief Petty Officer Brian Jessup and Petty Officer First Class Dustin Wallace became sick and displaced from their homes, in one instance for several months, as a result of the fuel spill and the resulting distribution of bad water.

According to the lawsuit, the spill and its impact happened while the five plaintiffs were off duty. The plaintiffs report themselves and family members falling ill as a result of drinking the water, as well as punitive measures in some cases after being truant while caring for sick children. 

Task & Purpose reached out to the Department of Defense for comment on the lawsuit but as of press time has not heard back. 

After the spill, and massive outcry from Hawaiians as well as military families on Oahu.  The leak led to a non-judicial rebuke of five admirals, as well as a steep erosion of trust between Hawaiians and the military on Oahu. The Navy had originally said that the water was safe to drink; the Hawaii Department of Health said that it was not safe, for drinking or for hygiene purposes. 

In general, it is hard for active-duty service members to sue the federal government, due to a rule called the Feres Doctrine. However, the lawsuit and Kristina Baehr, the attorney representing the active-duty military members, say that the spill was caused by non-uniformed personnel and therefore there are grounds for the suit.

“The case challenges the limits of the Feres Doctrine, which generally prevents active-duty service members from bringing claims against the government for injury while in the line of duty,” Baehr said in a statement on the lawsuit. “These service members were not in the line of duty when they were making Thanksgiving dinner, showering, and bathing littles at home.”

Additionally, per regulation, the group filed a claim with the Navy, which did not respond in the required six-month period, leading to the five troops to sue. 

After a lengthy process, the military is currently in the process of removing the fuel from the Red Hill  depot. As of Friday, Nov. 10, Joint Task Force-Red Hill (JTF-RH) has completed removing 89,223,876 gallons of fuel from the site. Nearly all of the fuel is expected to be taken out by the end of the year.

In addition to this new lawsuit, there is a separate case filed by more than 4,600 military family members and civilians against the federal government over the Red Hill spill. Baehr is also representing the plaintiffs there; Feindt’s husband is the lead plaintiff. 

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