Citing continuing health issues from the water crisis in Hawaii, five families have filed administrative claims seeking monetary damages from the Navy.
The families filed claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act, alleging the Navy released jet fuel and other contaminants from the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility into the families’ drinking water at least twice in 2021 — May 6 and Nov. 20, and didn’t immediately disclose the incidents.
Some of the families also allege they weren’t given a basic level of medical care. “Military providers recorded symptoms but failed to run the standard toxicology labs to check liver function, kidney function and Complete Blood Count,” wrote the attorneys for the families in a Feb. 22 letter accompanying the claims sent to Vice Adm. Darse E. Crandall, the Navy’s judge advocate general.
Navy officials didn’t respond to allegations about the medical care. “The Navy has no comment regarding any potential future legal actions,” said Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, the Navy’s chief spokesman.
These aren’t the first of the Hawaii families affected by the water crisis who have filed these claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act. One military wife interviewed by Military Times said she had earlier filed a claim, and an unknown number of others have, too.
About 9,000 households in 19 different communities on the Navy water system at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam have been affected. These include two Army communities and Air Force communities in the Hickam side. On Nov. 28, military families reported smelling fuel odors and seeing an oily film in their tap water. But some had reported mysterious abdominal pain, vomiting, memory loss, skin rashes, eye irritation, and teeth and gum issues even before the signs of fuel appeared.
In the letter to Crandall, the attorneys describe the experiences of the five families, including those of Air Force wife Ariana Wyatt, whose 4-year-old daughter is still suffering from a swollen thyroid. The child began suffering from abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, irritation of her skin and eyes, mouth sores, heart palpitations, bladder incontinence and hair loss before she turned 4 years old. Her parents have to hold her down while she gets blood drawn every three weeks “as she screams and pleads for them to stop,” according to the letter.
The total amount of monetary claims for each of the 15 people in these five claims will be determined either through the negotiations during the claims process, or at a later trial, if it goes to federal court, according to attorney Kristina Baehr. “At a minimum, each person will need medical monitoring for the rest of their lives.” She said hundreds more claims related to the incident are expected to be filed. Twelve of the 15 people who are filing these claims are in military families; the other three were visitors to the area during the time. Baehr’s firm also represents civilian families living at Kapilina Beach Homes, also on the Navy water system.
Because government personnel failed to disclose the leaks, the families “ingested contaminated water and became sick from that exposure,” the attorneys stated in their letter to Crandall.
“They are now at risk for conditions like acute leukemia, respiratory disorders, immune and hematological disorders, neurological effects, visual and hearing disorders, renal and hepatic diseases, cardiovascular conditions, gastrointestinal disorders, genotoxic and metabolic effects,” they wrote.
“On behalf of the Navy, Secretary Carlos Del Toro has taken responsibility for the errors of their agents in May and November of 2021, and he has promised that the Navy will make it right. These are the very circumstances that the Federal Tort Claims Act was designed for,” the attorneys wrote.
The Federal Tort Claims Act, enacted in 1946, allows individuals to file claims with the federal government for monetary damages resulting from personal injury, death, or property loss or damage caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of an employee of the federal government.
The so-called SF-95 claims are a required step before a lawsuit can be filed against the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act. This gives the government an initial opportunity to evaluate a claim and decide whether to settle it before the case goes to federal court. If the government denies the claim, the plaintiff can file suit in federal court within six months after the final denial.
“Our investigation continues, but the process of obtaining proper medical care, safe housing and justice for our clients has moved forward with these SF-95 filings,” Baehr said. “We expect to file hundreds of claims for military families and affected civilians. In the meantime, our work to investigate this incident for our clients continues.”
Honolulu-based trial attorney Lyle S. Hosoda is also representing some of the families.
Although there were conflicting reports initially, the Navy confirmed Dec. 3 that petroleum had been found in the water. Thousands left their homes to go to hotels at government expense; others stayed in their homes for various reasons and were supplied with bottled water, bulk water and other needs. There has been extensive flushing and testing of the water in the distribution system, homes and facilities, but to date only two housing communities have been told their water has been deemed safe by the Hawaii Department of Health. The Red Hill housing community was notified Feb. 14 and Pearl City Peninsula was notified Feb. 23.
Some families are questioning the flushing and testing process, including Navy wife Jamic Simic, who says her home still smells of fuel and the sheen remains on the water after nine flushing attempts.
Simic, one of those who filed a claim, said she was in the emergency room five times from July 2021 to November 2021.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.