Four military families are suing the U.S. government, alleging the military’s negligence caused the release of fuel that contaminated their drinking water and sickened their families in Hawaii, and that it failed to provide adequate medical care.
This is the first federal lawsuit filed against the government in conjunction with the water crisis, which affected about 100,000 people — from Navy, Army and Air Force families — on the Navy water line. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Hawaii Wednesday, alleges negligence in at least two separate events — May 6 and Nov. 21 — at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.
“This is a historic moment for military families to be able to challenge their toxic exposure in real time,” said Kristina Baehr, an attorney representing the families. “This is the first time that we know of where military families knew this was happening in real time, so they could actually bring a claim. In Camp Lejeune, they didn’t find out about [water contamination] until way too late.
“We know military families have been poisoned many times before,” she added. “Now, they know now. And the government has admitted operator error.”
The lawsuit alleges the government knew the water was “dangerously contaminated” all along and failed to disclose the contamination as required by federal law. So, the families “continued to ingest and immerse themselves in the toxic water,” the lawsuit alleges.
Navy officials will not comment on ongoing litigation, a Navy spokesman said in a statement to Military Times. “The Navy’s priorities are to ensure the safety and health of our people, their families, and the community members impacted by the Red Hill fuel spill, provide responses to their concerns, and ensure access to clean drinking water.”
The lawsuit alleges that as the families became sicker, the Navy compounded their suffering by initially denying and dismissing their concerns, and denying them “even the most basic standard of care when they turned to military medical providers for help.”
All four families lived in military housing in various communities in Hawaii, served by Navy water. They’ve all moved away from Hawaii because of the situation, but their health problems have continued, they allege.
Some of the families have been vocal for months about their illnesses. The four families are Navy wife Nastasia Freeman and her three children; Army husband Patrick Feindt and his two children; Navy wife Jamie Simic and her two children; and Air Force wife Ariana Wyatt and her child. At this time, the lawsuit involves only family members, not service members. The service members are evaluating potential claims in light of recent legislation allowing administrative claims against the U.S. for personal injury or death resulting from medical malpractice caused by a DoD health care provider.
“My hope is that this brings awareness to the long-term effects of exposure to jet fuel, increases safety, and allows us to gain access to health care providers specialized in treatment related to exposure to jet fuel so that we can get well,” Freeman told Military Times.
“I hope this prevents others from going through what we are,” she said.
“This has halted our lives. We went from living to surviving. It’s almost daily that we are getting a call that one of us has abnormal labs or imaging and needs a new referral. We are living in a state of uncertainty and fear every day as we navigate our illnesses,” said Freeman, who moved to California in February. Her husband is a Navy ensign.
The lawsuit alleges negligence, nuisance, medical negligence, failure to treat, delayed care and infliction of emotional distress.
Some 9,715 households in Navy, Army and Air Force neighborhoods were affected by an estimated 19,000-gallon jet fuel spill at the massive Red Hill storage facility, which contaminated the Navy’s water distribution system in November 2021. Although families started complaining about the oily film and smell of fuel in their water in late November, Navy officials initially insisted the water was safe to drink.
Military officials later authorized families to move to hotels at government expense, while flushing of the water distribution lines and homes were being conducted.
But according to the lawsuit, “they were forced to move back into those contaminated homes, only to immediately get sick again.”
Ultimately these four families moved away from Hawaii, but their health nightmares continue, according to the lawsuit. “As of the date of filing, the once-healthy adults and children have been treated — and even hospitalized — for seizures, gastrointestinal disorders, neurological issues, burns, rashes, lesions, thyroid abnormalities (in two young girls), migraines, neurobehavioral challenges, and other maladies.”
The families have all gone through the administrative claims process required by the Federal Tort Claims Act before lawsuits can be filed. None of the families have received any offers from the Navy. The families have “exhausted their remedies” under the law, and have met the requirements for suing the government, according to the lawsuit.
There are hundreds of additional claims in the administrative process, and will be added later to the lawsuit if families want to pursue this action. Attorney Kristina Baehr said the lawsuit won’t be a class action, because class action lawsuits against the government are not allowed. Each person must be represented individually.
The lawsuit lays out the details of how the operator errors by government employees happened in May and November. The Navy didn’t announce the November fuel leak until 12 days later. The lawsuit also alleges the Navy’s operations at Red Hill violated federal law and regulations, and that the Navy was aware it wasn’t safely operating the site. The Navy has since agreed to begin the process for shutting down the Red Hill storage facility.
The families allege they didn’t get proper medical care, which compounded their problems, and that the Navy’s cleanup efforts “compounded the toxic harm.”
Freeman said her family lived in Aliamanu Military Reservation housing from May 2021 through February. Before moving to Hawaii, her three boys had a clean bill of health, she said. Now, between the three of them, besides their primary care provider, they see specialists in neurology, gastrointestinal, rheumatology, occupational medicine, occupational therapy and speech therapy. “Our oldest son is now in his school’s home hospital program due to illness, so he completes school at home,” she said. Between the three boys, they have been hospitalized four times.
Since November 2021, Freeman has been referred to and seen specialists in neurology, urology, nephrology, gynecology, dermatology, occupational medicine, pelvic therapy and genetic counseling, she said. A dormant, preexisting seizure disorder flared up for Freeman in the wake of the fuel contamination, and she began suffering from multiple seizures a day.
“In November we were experiencing severe stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, seizures, skin rashes, burning of the eyes, brain fog and dizziness. We tried getting treatment and labs in Hawaii but were denied,” Freeman said.
“It was not until Nastasia ended up in the emergency room at the Mayo Clinic — off the island — that she was finally given the tests that she had needed all along. Her provider there was surprised by the lack of care she had received on base,” the lawsuit states.
“As time has gone on and since moving off island we are now not just seeing those symptoms still linger, but are getting confirmation of long-term damage and chronic illness diagnosis, some of which will need to be managed lifelong,” Freeman said.
The situation has brought on financial burdens as well, she said, related to their move, health care and replacement of belongings that were exposed to the contamination. Her work as a therapist has “ground to a halt with her family’s medical challenges,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit asks for an unspecified amount of damages because of the families’ past and future physical pain and suffering and mental anguish; medical expenses; lost income and earning capacity; physical impairment; loss of enjoyment and quality of life; loss of enjoyment of property; out of pocket expenses; and loss of personal property.
The families are looking for change, Baehr said. “These poor military families are saying ‘Enough. This has to stop.’
“The government can’t keep poisoning American families on American soil. And if they do, they have to have a comprehensive emergency response.
“They can’t just tell people they’re not sick when clearly they are sick.”
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.