US Navy sued over ‘toxic secrets’

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Families in Hawaii accuse the military of failing to disclose “catastrophic contamination” of tap water with jet fuel

Four families have sued the US Navy for contaminating the water supply near Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor with thousands of gallons of jet fuel, saying the military harbored “toxic secrets” and failed to take proper corrective actions as they were severely sickened.

At least twice in 2021, fuel leaked from a World War II-era complex of storage tanks into a well that supplies water to homes and offices in and around the massive Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. To this day, the Navy has yet to fully disclose the scope of the “catastrophic contamination,” according to a lawsuit filed on Wednesday in US District Court in Honolulu.

“Throughout 2021, as more than 93,000 military service members, their family members, and civilians relied on the government for safe water on the island of Oahu, the Navy harbored toxic secrets,” the lawsuit alleged. “As the Feindt, Freeman, Simic, and Wyatt families and too many others like them would discover, the water they drank and bathed in was dangerously contaminated. And government officials knew all along.”

Hundreds of additional plaintiffs are expected to join in the lawsuit once they complete the administrative process required for such claims against the federal government, lawyers for the families said. Thousands of people continued to use the water because the Navy failed to disclose the leaks or the severity of the contamination. According to the filing, the plaintiffs continue to suffer from seizures, gastrointestinal disorders and neurological issues and other maladies.

“As these families became sicker from water, the government compounded the families’ suffering,” the lawsuit said. “First, Navy leadership denied and dismissed their concerns. The families’ questions and concerns were ignored or minimized. Then the Navy denied the families even the most basic standard of care when they turned to military medical providers for help.”

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File photo: A ship arrives at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, US © Reuters/  US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jason Abrams
‘Crisis of astronomical proportions’ over Pearl Harbor contamination

The Navy first confirmed the contamination in December 2021, after initially claiming that a fuel leak was confined to a tunnel that didn’t affect water supplies. Once the problem was acknowledged, water service to nearly 100,000 people was disrupted. At the time, US Representative Kai Kahele, a Hawaii Democrat, called the incident a “crisis of astronomical proportions.”

As families began to complain about the smell and taste of their water, the base commander sent out a notice indicating that there was no reason to believe the water was unsafe. “All they had to do was say, ‘We see that there’s a problem, we don’t know what it is, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to find out and fix it,’” Navy wife Cheri Burness told the Associated Press. “That’s all they had to do. And instead, we got: ‘Nope. Looks good. Smells fine. Bye.’”

A Navy investigation blamed the crisis on poor management and human error. About 6,000 people were reportedly sickened by the contamination.

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