‘History has repeated itself:’ Victims of Red Hill water contamination call for legislation inspired by Camp Lejeune aid
WASHINGTON — Some service members and their families who fell ill when jet fuel leaked into the water supply at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam urged lawmakers on Tuesday to fight for long-term medical care for the victims and to demand transparency from the Navy on the contamination.
Army Maj. Amanda Feindt and Jamie Simic, a Navy spouse, traveled from Hawaii to meet with members of Congress and their aides about the water contamination incident at the storage facility of fuel from Red Hill. The women, along with their husbands and young children, all fell ill late last year after kerosene from the huge underground storage facility seeped into one of the three wells the navy uses for its water distribution system on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
“I’m here as the mother of two children who were poisoned on American soil by an American asset,” Feindt said. “I believe the Navy has failed our children. I thought it was negligence.
Feindt and her 4-year-old daughter ended up in a hospital emergency room in December suffering from uncontrollable vomiting, diarrhea and dehydration. Feindt felt such severe abdominal pain that she felt like she was in labor, she said. Her daughter has since been diagnosed with a neurological condition believed to be linked to the contamination.
Before falling ill, Feindt had been reassured by the Navy that her neighborhood on Ford Island was free of contaminants, she said.
“We were told that our water had been cleaned for use. A week later, we find out that’s not true,” she said. “I was angry.”
Feindt and Simic are among the thousands of soldiers and their families affected by the contamination. The water supply serves 93,000 residents on and near the base, many of whom have been sickened by drinking water. Thousands of people, including Feindt and Simic, were displaced from their homes. As of Tuesday, their families were still living in hotel rooms.
Simic, Feindt and about 100 other military families affected by the leak are represented by Just Well Law, a personal injury law firm specializing in toxic substance exposure and military housing. The women and their lawyers had meetings Tuesday with nine congressional offices. Feindt said they had been told by some offices of plans “already in the works” to deal with the incident, although she said she could not go into specifics.
“It gives us some hope,” she said. “It gives us some light at the end of the tunnel. The people we spoke to today, they care and it’s important to them. We leave quite confident.
But Feindt and Simic said they want lawmakers to compel the Navy to disclose the list of contaminants in drinking water. They also want all homes on and near the base to be tested and the results available. In areas where homes cannot be secured, homes should be boarded up and families relocated, they said.
The women also want the US government to send toxicology and environmental health experts to test the area and victims and provide adequate health care.
Additionally, the families seek the same relief afforded to service members and families who were exposed to contaminated water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in the 1950s through the 1980s.
Feindt and Simic are calling for service members and families affected by the Red Hill leak to receive medical coverage under the Department of Veterans Affairs or Tricare, the Army health care program, for the same covered conditions. for veterans and their dependents who were exposed to contaminants at Camp Lejeune. Conditions include adult leukemia, aplastic anemia, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and Parkinson’s disease.
“History repeated itself,” said Kristina Baehr, one of their lawyers. “And now the remedies that helped this situation can help here. [We want them] to model legislation after Camp Lejeune and make sure people get medical care for the illnesses we know they’re going to get. This is not rocket science. Kerosene is very harmful to health.
The National Academies National Research Council should conduct a full long-term risk assessment of exposure, a step that was also taken with the Camp Lejeune contamination, the women said.
The families affected by Red Hill are also demanding incentive pay for unsafe service for service members cleaning up the leak, and they want water-sick families to be given a compassionate transfer to a other place.
One of the first steps they want Congress to take is to call for a “full, complete and independent” investigation into the leak, Baehr said.
Navy officials testified to Congress last week that the spill was the result of “operator error”, although an investigation is underway into the cause. The United States Environmental Protection Agency also plans to inspect the Red Hill facility later this month.
Congress is already considering action related to the incident. The provision would require the Department of Defense to comply with an emergency order from the State of Hawaii to empty the Red Hill facility. The measure, which was attached to an interim spending bill, would provide the Pentagon with $100 million to begin the process.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, added the measure to the spending bill this week. The $100 million represents “the first round of possible funding” to remove the fuel from Red Hill, his office said.
However, the Justice Department is fighting Hawaii’s emergency order to empty the facility. The department appealed Hawaii’s order last week, arguing that state law does not allow such a sweeping edict. The appeal alleges that the Hawaii Department of Health exceeded its authority under state law by ordering the removal of approximately 150 million gallons of fuel from the facility.
The Navy is flushing out the contaminated well, distribution system and pipes in each affected home.
Stars and Stripes reporter Wyatt Olson contributed to this report.