Trial underway for military families suing US government over tainted water at Hawaii base

Trial underway for military families suing US government over tainted water at Hawaii base

Richelle Dietz, a mother of two and wife of a U.S. Navy officer, often thinks about water.

The family, stationed in Honolulu, spends more than $120 a month on jugs of bottled water for drinking, cooking and cleaning, as well as showerhead and sink filters. Each night the children, ages 13 and 5, carry cups of bottled water upstairs to their bathrooms to brush their teeth.

"I hope that one day I can not think about water all the time," Dietz said. "But right now it’s a constant."


That vigilance is to avoid more vomiting, diarrhea, rashes and other ailments, which they said they started experiencing 2021, when jet fuel leaked into the Navy water system serving 93,000 people on and around the Pearl Harbor base. It sickened thousands in military housing, including, Dietz says, her own family.

She's one of 17 relatives of U.S. military members suing the United States over the leak from the World War II-era storage tanks. She said her entire family — including dog Rocket — continues to suffer from health problems they link to the tainted water. Her husband, a chief petty officer, declined to be interviewed by The Associated Press because he fears retaliation from the Navy.

The 17 are considered "bellwether" plaintiffs representing more than 7,500 other military family members, civilians and service members in three federal lawsuits. The outcome of their trial, which starts Monday, will help determine the success of the other cases and the damages that could be awarded.

Kristina Baehr, one of their attorneys, said she already considers it a success because the U.S. government has admitted liability.


U.S. Department of Justice attorneys wrote in court documents that the government admits the Nov. 20, 2021, spill at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility "caused a nuisance" for the plaintiffs, that the United States "breached its duty of care" and that the plaintiffs suffered compensable injuries.

But they dispute the plaintiffs were exposed to jet fuel at levels high enough to cause their alleged health problems. Lingering issues plaintiffs say they are battling include seizures, memory loss, anxiety, eczema and asthma.

When the Dietz family arrived in Hawaii in February 2021, "we thought we were moving to heaven on earth," Dietz wrote in a declaration filed in the case.

But around Thanksgiving — soon after the leak — they couldn't figure out their stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea. Other families in the neighborhood were also sick. Then they developed rashes.

"My throat is burning. I feel like I just drank gasoline," Dietz remembers telling her husband on Nov. 27.

The next night, her Facebook timeline was filled with neighbors complaining about the smell of fuel in their water. The Dietzes ran to their faucets and smelled fuel, too. They noticed the tap water also had an oily sheen.

Attorneys representing the families say the trial will show Navy officers failed to warn residents after learning about fuel in the water, and even maintained that staff members were drinking the water.

Navy representatives and government attorneys didn’t respond to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit.

The fuel storage tanks have long been a flashpoint in Hawaii, with Native Hawaiians and other residents raising concerns over the past decade about leaks that threatened the broader water supply. The tanks sit above an aquifer that delivers water to 400,000 people in urban Honolulu.

At first, the Navy said it hadn't determined how petroleum got into the water, but its own investigation eventually pinned the cause to a cascading series of mistakes.

On May 6, 2021, a pipe ruptured due to an operator error and caused 21,000 gallons (80,000 liters) of fuel that was being transferred between tanks to spill. Most of the fuel, however, entered a fire suppression line and remained there until six months later, when a cart rammed into the line and released 20,000 gallons (75,700 liters) that eventually got into the water system.

Red Hill workers noticed that one of the tanks was short that amount, but didn’t report the discrepancy to senior leadership.

Dietz didn't want to risk her husband's career by asking to leave Hawaii. So they stayed and were committed to avoiding tap water while they figured out their next steps.

"They're just going to put another family in this house," she said. "So we need to stay here and we need to try to fight to get this fixed."

In doing so, Dietz says she found unexpected allies among Native Hawaiians, who revere water as a sacred resource and already have a distrust of the U.S. military, which can be traced back to at least 1893, when a group of American businessmen, with support from U.S. Marines, overthrew the Hawaiian kingdom.

Kawenaʻulaokalā Kapahua — a Native Hawaiian political science doctoral student and one of the activists who pushed to shut down the tanks — said the water crisis forged a sense of solidarity with affected military families. It also fostered relationships within a military community of members who often cycle quickly in and out of the islands, he said.

When families felt abandoned by the military, "the people who did show up for them was the Native community," Kapahua said.

Dietz agreed. "They gave us a seat at the table," she said through tears.

Eventually, under orders from state officials, pressure from the outcry and ongoing protests, the military drained the tanks.

Dietz's husband later got new orders and the family is relocating to Jacksonville, Florida, this summer. They don't plan to live in military housing there.

As she prepares to move out of a house where the ice maker has remained off since 2021, Dietz hopes the trial will renew awareness about what happened to the water.

"Somebody's going to move in," she said, "and I'm worried they're going to turn on the ice machine."


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