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Navy to open Red Hill Clinic for those with continued illness related to fuel exposure

Sabrina Boden
Joint Task Force - Red Hill Commander Rear Adm. John Wade, Commander and Dr. Jennifer Espiritu of the Defense Health Agency Region Indo-Pacific, discuss standing up a Red Hill Clinic amid claims of long-term health issues.

The one-year anniversary of the November Red Hill fuel spill has prompted demonstrations and remembrances this week.

On Monday, Navy officials announced a clinic to address long-term health issues possibly associated with jet-fuel exposure.

Dr. Jennifer Espiritu, chief of public health at Tripler Army Medical Center and interim public health expert for Defense Health Agency Region Indo-Pacific, said the Red Hill Clinic will address any lingering illnesses.

“People are absolutely having health care problems that I believe and people deserve to be seen, that I believe with all my heart,” Espiritu said Monday. But she worried about linking the use of the contaminated water. “Whether the two are connected? I can't…We can't make that leap now. But what we want to happen is for people to come in so we can see them, find out what's happening to them, and work them up thoroughly. So if there is a connection, we can pursue it.”

Noting data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry study, Espiritu said a litany of health-issues were reported, like skin rashes, gastrointestinal problems and some neurologic problems.

“We would like to give easy access to our patients who are suffering from those complaints,” Espiritu said. Details related to where the clinic would be located, or a timeline for its opening, were not provided Monday.

Many of these health-issues were reported after residents used and sometimes swallowed gasoline-laced water last November, when jet fuel leaked into the Navy’s water system from the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. More than 93,000 people in the Pearl Harbor area were on this system, and around 6,000 initially reported health concerns.

Espiritu said there are limited studies on the long-term effects of jet-fuel exposure, and that some health effects may not yet be present.

“The health effects that we're looking for typically take decades,” she said. “So you know that that's like the cancers, or some of the neurologic conditions. We're branching into new territory.”

Now, a year since that spill, more than 100 million gallons of fuel still remain in the Red Hill tanks, about 100 feet above an aquifer thousands of residents rely on.

Joint Task Force Red Hill Commander Rear Admiral John Wade said the island’s water will remain under threat until that fuel is removed.

“I was on Oʻahu, a year ago, I remember the confusion,” Wade said Monday. “Many military and civilians who work for me were directly impacted. I will never forget that experience.”

Defueling and closure of Red Hill is projected for June 2024, under the supervision of plans accepted by the state Department of Health. Between then and now, Wade said there will be continued discussion on just how that’ll be accomplished.

“First, there's a technical engineering, methodical and deliberate removal of the fuel,” Wade said. “And the other is active listening, compassionate, and empathetic conversations with our military families and the community. “

Wade said water monitoring will continue as defueling progresses.

Sabrina Bodon was Hawaiʻi Public Radio's government reporter.
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