BIn early December, U.S. Army Major Amanda Gemeint and her family found themselves at the Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu. First her husband with debilitating ocular migraines, then her four-year-old daughter who was vomiting with severe abdominal pain, then her one-year-old daughter with chemical burns, and later herself when she began to experience debilitating back pain that prevented her from being able to walk , among other worrying symptoms.
The Freundts were just four of thousands who were reportedly nauseous after 19,000 gallons of jet fuel from a WWII-era US Navy underground fuel storage facility spilled into one of Oahu’s major aquifers. The contamination has led to a major water crisis in the Pacific, affecting more than 93,000 people.
Many affected military families and civilians at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam say they continue to get sick and that the Navy has not provided accurate information about the possible toxins in their tap water and bodies.
This has led to calls for the tanks to be emptied quickly to prevent further disasters.
feint says her case exemplifies the difficulties families face. Back in November,feint, along with many others, was told by the Navy that there was nothing wrong with their water, despite a Hawaii Department of Health (DOH) recommendation not to use the water for drinking, bathing, washing dishes, or brushing teeth.
Not wanting to question her employer, her family continued to use the water for over a week, until the Navy officially announced it was discontinuing use of the fuel tank facility. Test results from the DOH subsequently showed that the drinking water had a petroleum content 350 times higher than the department believes is safe.
Still, the Navy refused to share results of tests taken at her home and at her daughter’s school, telling her she had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get them. (It has yet to get those results. The Navy could not comment on the issue, a spokesman told the Guardian.)
In December, the military moved the Freundt family and other military families to hotels in the area, where they stayed for months. In March, after water lines were flushed and 15% of homes checked for residual contamination, the Hawaii military and health department said it was safe to go home.
Returned residents have reported on Facebook seeing oil slicks on the water, alongside multiple reports of health issues such as skin rashes and chemical burns (particularly in children), neurological issues, gastrointestinal issues, fatigue and headaches, among other problems.
In early June,feint, who had paid over a thousand dollars for her family’s toxicology tests at the Great Plains Laboratory in Kansas, received and posted some of the results for her two children in the support group. They showed levels of gasoline additives, flame retardant chemicals and petroleum. Several others got similar results. You sounded the alarm.
The Guardian asked an independent toxicologist, Jenifer Heath, to interpret them, but Heath said it was impossible for her to do so without other information, such as people’s medical histories.
The hydrocarbons in jet fuel have been linked to liver and stomach cancer, reproductive problems, nervous and endocrine system dysfunction, and neurological problems, said Chelsey Simoni, an epidemiological toxicologist with the HunterSeven Foundation, a nonprofit group of medical professionals and military veterans, in a May Letter to Armed Forces Housing Advocates.
Attorneys representing families who have filed lawsuits against the Navy allege Tripler’s medical center only treated symptoms and did not conduct thorough toxicology studies or consider the possibility of long-term problems.
Navy officials said there was no evidence the residents’ long-term medical symptoms were related to the water distribution system and that no one had been hospitalized for petroleum poisoning. “I wouldn’t suspect families are making up their ailments,” Capt. Michael McGinnis, U.S. Pacific Fleet surgeon and chief medical officer, told Hawaii News Now. “Certainly, stress can manifest itself in physical symptoms. That’s something to consider.”
A Navy spokeswoman, Lydia Robertson, told the Guardian that “we too are concerned about long-term health effects.” As a result, an event registry was established and military medical facilities in Hawaii were “aware of our contaminated water incident and stand ready to assess any related medical concerns.” Robertson also said that testing for petroleum hydrocarbons is “limited and not readily available,” according to the Hawaii Department of Health.
Most recently, the Navy told Hawai’i News Now that there had been no medical encounters related to the water crisis in the past month. (Some residents have disputed this on social media, saying the Navy hotline is ineffective.) The Navy also conducts a monthly water testing program in 15% of homes.
The Red Hill underground fuel storage facility began construction east of Pearl Harbor at the start of World War II, not long before the Japanese attacked in 1941. The US military presence on the islands is controversial among many native Hawaiians and has existed since 1893, when the military helped illegally overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy.
The facility includes 20 250-foot-tall tanks with a capacity of 250 million gallons of fuel, located every 100 feet above the city’s main aquifer.
The 2021 leak wasn’t the first. A report prepared for the Navy several decades ago quoted a former employee as saying that 1.3 million gallons were spilled during the war. And in January 2014, the Navy reported to the Hawaii Department of Health that there was a 27,000-gallon leak that was contaminating the area’s groundwater, drawing attention to the facility and its threat to Oahu’s water sources.
Not long after, military officials agreed with federal and state agencies to modernize the corroded systems.
According to the EPA, infrastructure improvements began on the day they were agreed. Nevertheless, there were a number of minor leaks – one of which was not reported by the Navy for months to avoid bad optics.
A whistleblower also informed the local health department that Navy officials withheld information about the extent of corrosion at the facility and made false statements about structural problems.
These problems – along with a heavily redacted third-party assessment stating that extensive repairs are required due to severe corrosion, cracking and fire risks – have prompted many to defuel the tanks as soon as possible.
“We’re just one earthquake away from a lifetime, lifetime catastrophe,” said Wayne Tanaka, director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, who has been suing the Navy since 2017.
How long it will take to empty the tanks is unclear. In a 2019 analysis, the Navy claimed it could safely defuel tanks within 36 hours. But a new estimate, released when the Navy admitted extensive human error and systemic errors led to the leaks, puts the completion in late 2024.
Throughout the crisis,feint, who has served in the Army for 16 years, was one of the few active duty military personnel to speak out on social media and in the news. She says she suffered retaliation from her superiors and other military personnel. (The Army declined to comment on these allegations.)
She has found support from victims of the water pollution discovered at Marine Camp Lajeune in North Carolina in the 1980s, but primarily from Native Hawaiian activists.
In December, the Oahu Water Protectors, a coalition of organizers and community members fighting for clean water, staged a protest that saw hundreds turn out with chants in the capital “Oh, I ka wai(Water is Life) and calling for the closure of Red Hill.
Since then, the group has promoted neighborhoods with brochures to raise awareness, ran social media campaigns and is part of the Shut Down Red Hill Mutual Aid Collective. This primarily Hawaiian-led organization has provided supplies and bottled water to military and civilian families and has organized community meetings where families can talk about their struggles.
On June 14, another group of community activists, the Wai Ola Alliance, filed a lawsuit to get the court to declare that the Navy violated the Clean Water Act, with a fine of $60,000 per Day for violations committed since April 2017.
One of the leaders of the alliance is Mary Maxine Kahaulelio, one of several activists arrested in 1977 for trying to stop the US Army from bombing the Hawaiian island of Kaho’olawe. These efforts eventually succeeded and the land was returned to the state in 1994. It is now a cultural reserve.
In a recent testimony at another military training center, she brought up the importance of Pearl Harbor.
“Pearl Harbor used to be the largest fishpond Hawaii had ever known. Pearl Harbor fed them ali’i’ [royalty], fed the commoners and it’s all gone because the military owns all our country. But you don’t own me.”
She ended with an appeal to the military: “We love you but aloha go home. Go home.”