U.S. Navy Faces Class-Action Lawsuit Over Red Hill Spill

red hill
Fuel pipeline tunnel at Red Hill (U.S. Navy file image)

Published Dec 30, 2021 9:53 PM by The Maritime Executive

In addition to its troubles with state and local regulators in Hawaii, the U.S. Navy may soon face a class-action lawsuit over the recent water contamination event at its Red Hill fuel storage facility, a WWII-era underground tank farm on the outskirts of Honolulu.

On November 20, the facility recently released 17,000 gallons of fuel/water mixture from a ruptured drain line, the result of a "cart crash" inside its tunnels. This resulted in fuel contamination in a water system that supplies 93,000 servicemembers and their families. Since the problem was discovered in early December, about 4,000 personnel have been relocated to temporary housing, and the U.S. Army has stepped up to provide short-term food and drinking water while the Navy works to flush the system. 

On Thursday, Honolulu-based attorney Michael Green told local media that the circumstances of the accident are ripe for a class-action lawsuit for servicemembers' dependents. Children, spouses and even pregnant women were exposed to the water, which had concentrations of fuel up to 350 times the state's emergency action level, according to the state department of health. 

"I have reason to believe the documents that could go to show the reckless conduct [at Red Hill] - if not criminal conduct - [have] been reclassified by the Navy," Green told local KHON2 News. "So that’s going to make it almost impossible for us to get those documents without a court order."

Navy continues fight against state closure order

Following the discovery of water contamination at Red Hill, Hawaiian Gov. David Ige and the state's health department ordered the Navy to close and drain the facility until it is inspected and proven safe. Hawaiian Deputy Attorney General David Day upheld the order after a series of contentious hearings last week, and the Department of Health will make a final decision on whether it should be executed within 30 days.

The Navy is still fighting the order. On Thursday, it filed a written objection to the hearing officer's findings, arguing that the decision did not lay out a sufficient factual basis to prove that there is an emergency. "There is no evidence in the record showing that [Red Hill] operations pose an inherent risk of causing harm, such that merely resuming operations would automatically give rise to ‘grave risk; jeopardy; danger’ that is ‘likely to occur at any moment,'" argued the Navy's counsel in a detailed 43-page objection.  

Honolulu's Bureau of Water Supply, which has fought to close Red Hill for years, called on the Navy to accept the decision. The BWS said that the service's latest objections "largely reiterate the same flawed arguments that were already raised, considered and rejected in full and fair contested case proceeding."