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Military members suing over Red Hill contamination speak out

Navy Ensign Koda Freeman speaks at a town hall on Oʻahu on March 28, 2023.
Catherine Cruz
Navy Ensign Koda Freeman speaks at a town hall on Oʻahu on March 28, 2023.

A Navy sailor, an Army colonel and an Army major are the first active-duty military members taking the initial step toward suing the U.S. government over jet fuel that contaminated drinking water in Hawaiʻi.

Navy Ensign Koda Freeman, Army Maj. Amanda Feindt, and Army Col. Jessica Whaley filed pre-litigation claim forms with the Navy late Monday, which will allow them to later file a federal lawsuit in Honolulu, their attorneys said.

Their attorneys organized a town hall meeting on Tuesday at the Disabled Veterans Hall in Honolulu. More than 50 people turned up to speak to them. Fiendt and Freeman participated via Zoom from the continent.

Fiendt, the mother of two young children, has been in the military for 17 years. Fiendt said she knows her career is on the line, but she felt she had to speak out on behalf of her family after unexplained illnesses and a frustrating time living on Ford Island during the water contamination crisis.

"I think they sort of erred on the side of our ignorance that a lot of us in the military are trained to sort of fall in line, to listen to those folks who have been entrusted in these senior positions, that they're putting out timely and accurate information. And there's a sense of trust, there's trust in our leadership," Fiendt said.

"This is not a situation that can be swept under the rug. We're talking about people's lives," she said.

In 2021, jet fuel spilled from a drain line at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, flowed into a drinking water well and then into the Navy’s water system serving 93,000 people in and around Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

Nearly 6,000 sought medical attention, complaining of ailments such as nausea, headaches and sores. The military put about 4,000 families in hotels for several months.

The Hawaiʻi Department of Health ordered the Navy to shutter the facility after the spill, which also contaminated the ground beneath the tanks and threatened the health of an aquifer that provides water to 400,000 people in Honolulu.

A doctrine typically bars service members from making claims while in the line of duty. But in the claims, their attorneys said, “These injuries occurred in her home, during non-duty hours, were not ‘incident to service,’ and the United States is liable for them.”

Freeman, a Navy officer who has served for 12 years, said his family’s experience with water contamination has taken a toll on his wife and three children who were here on the islands from 2021 until last year when they moved to San Diego.

"I think accountability and getting the truth from all this is a big deal. There was an opportunity for the government to come out and say, 'Hey, there's a leak, you know, don't drink the water, the water's not safe.' And they didn't take that opportunity," Freeman said.

A separate lawsuit was filed on behalf of more than 100 civilians. Their attorneys say they expect to add thousands of others to the lawsuit.

A second town hall meeting about the military members' legal action is set for Thursday at 6 p.m. at the AMVETS West Oʻahu Veterans Center in ʻEwa Beach.

This interview aired on The Conversation on March 29, 2023. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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