A Navy contractor works on repairing a fuel pipe at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, March 6, 2023.

A Navy contractor works on repairing a fuel pipe at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, March 6, 2023. (Sarah Stegall/U.S. Marine Corps)

FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — Two soldiers and a sailor filed claims with the Navy on Monday seeking compensation arising from fuel-contaminated tap water in homes near Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in late 2021, making them the first active-duty personnel to pursue legal action in the matter.

Filing an administrative claim is a first step toward bringing suit in federal court under the Federal Tort Claims Act, according to a Tuesday news release by Just Well Law of Austin, Texas, and Hosoda Law Group, of Honolulu, which represents the service members.

The service members plan to file suit in federal court as soon as possible, the news release said.

The firms also represent more than 100 residents and former residents of military communities on or near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in a federal lawsuit filed last year that claims a host of medical conditions and illnesses from a jet fuel spill at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility near the base. None are active-duty service members.

The fuel contaminated one of three groundwater wells the Navy used to supply tap water to roughly 93,000 residents in those communities, leading to thousands being temporarily relocated to area hotels through winter 2022 as the Navy cleaned up the water system.

The claims made by the three service members will test the boundaries of a legal concept that prevents members of the armed forces injured during active duty from suing the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

“Under federal law, the Feres doctrine traditionally bars line-of-duty injury claims, but we assert that it cannot be used against off-duty service members that showered in and drank water poisoned by the Navy in their own homes,” Kristina Baehr, an attorney with Just Well Law, said in the news release.

The Navy in a statement Tuesday said it does not comment on ongoing litigation.

Filing claims Monday were Navy Ensign Koda Freeman, and Army Col. Jessica Whaley and Maj. Amanda Feindt.

Members of the Feindt and Freeman families are among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed in Hawaii federal court in September, which has been amended several times to add more complainants.

Feindt, who lived on Ford Island with her family, “became violently ill after exposure at home and at the military Child Development Center,” the news release said.

Whaley experienced profound changes in her health in 2021 and was taken to an emergency room with “severe toxic exposure symptoms,” the news release said.

“After a Congressional inquiry regarding his wife’s medical safety, Freeman faced targeted retaliation on the job,” the news release said. His wife, Nastasia, has suffered a debilitating level of seizures since the exposure to the contaminated water, according to the federal lawsuit.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit have described a wide range of symptoms they say were caused by exposure to contaminated water, including seizures, gastrointestinal disorders, neurological problems, burns, rashes, sores, thyroid abnormalities and migraine headaches.

Some have lost pets that became ill in the immediate wake of the contamination, while others say they have borne the costs of permanently relocating their families away from the affected communities.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last spring ordered the Red Hill facility permanently closed.

Navy contractors are now repairing pipelines and other safety features on the storage tanks so that the 104 million gallons of fuel can be drained. The tanks are expected to be drained before the end of summer 2024.

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Wyatt Olson is based in the Honolulu bureau, where he has reported on military and security issues in the Indo-Pacific since 2014. He was Stars and Stripes’ roving Pacific reporter from 2011-2013 while based in Tokyo. He was a freelance writer and journalism teacher in China from 2006-2009.

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