Years After Red Hill Spill, Residents Report Petroleum in Tapwater
The U.S. Navy is getting close to emptying the last pipes of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage facility, but dealing with its environmental legacy may take longer. Years after the fuel spill that contaminated the drinking water supply for servicemembers and family members at Joint Base Pearl Harbor, the Navy still faces ongoing complaints of petroleum in the base's tapwater. A new class action lawsuit brought by 2,200 residents contends that the contamination has not stopped, and that the Navy has still not done enough to protect servicemembers.
In November 2021, the WWII-era Red Hill facility suffered a 19,000-gallon jet fuel spill inside an access tunnel. The fuel percolated into a well and contaminated the drinking water supply for about 93,000 American soldiers, sailors and family members at Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. At least 2,000 people reported that they were sickened by fuel in water, more than 850 sought medical treatment, and at least 17 people said they were hospitalized overnight, Hawaii's Department of Health found in a survey.
The new federal lawsuit is the third that the Navy faces in connection with the Red Hill spill. Over 2,200 plaintiffs allege that they have ongoing medical conditions connected to the contamination of the base water supply. The lead plaintiffs claim that their children were affected by the contaminated water, and now require extensive treatment and medication.
When taken together with two previous active lawsuits, there are now more than 7,500 litigants with claims against the Navy in connection with the spill.
The new lawsuit also alleges that the water system at Pearl Harbor-Hickam remains contaminated today, and that the Navy never fully flushed out the last residues of the spill. According to the plaintiffs' attorneys, the Navy's water sampling program picked up 1,600 detections of hydrocarbons in the water system last year, and more than half of these test results identified the contaminant as diesel.
The detection levels all fall below the state action threshold which would trigger flushing, and the Navy says that the water quality remains safe. (There is no regulatory safety level for petroleum in water, according to the EPA and State of Hawaii.)
The Navy says that it is "surging personnel, resources, and expertise to respond to reports raising concerns" about the base's water quality. In addition, Vice Adm. Scotty Gray, commander of Navy Installations Command, will visit Hawaii to set up a medical working group.
However, the service also says that the low-level contaminants in the water do not match the chemical "fingerprint" of JP-5, the product spilled from Red Hill. The source remains unknown.