A tunnel inside of the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility in Hawaii is shown in October 2019.

A tunnel inside of the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility in Hawaii is shown in October 2019. (Shannon Haney/U.S. Navy)

Lawyers for families affected by a Navy fuel spill in Hawaii want to question the admiral in charge of U.S. Pacific Fleet, according to recent federal court filings.

The number of people suing the U.S. government over the November 2021 spill at Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility doubled with this week’s filing, which alleged new details. It’s the fourth updated complaint since the original was filed in September.

Their attorneys also moved to stop the government from shielding Adm. Samuel Paparo, who was nominated Tuesday to become the next chief of naval operations, from being deposed in the case.

The federal lawsuit springs from a leak of aviation fuel into three wells providing water to homes of mostly military families on and near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. About 93,000 people were drawing from contaminated water for bathing, drinking and meal preparation; many of them complained of illness and were evacuated to temporary housing.

Paparo took responsibility publicly as the scope of the spill began to unfold, according to the plaintiff’s motion filed May 30 in federal court in Honolulu. A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, according to the online court docket.

“All organizations within this response report directly to me and I am accountable for this fix,” the plaintiffs’ filing quotes Paparo as saying Dec. 21, 2021.

The admiral played a “hands-on role” during the jet fuel affair and should be deposed, the plaintiffs’ motion states.

“There is no reason under law or logic to prevent Plaintiffs’ from finding out the essential facts that only Admiral Paparo knows. The Government’s motion must be denied,” the motion states.

The government’s May 22 motion to quash Paparo’s deposition cites case law to argue that deposing “a high-ranking official like Admiral Paparo is permissible under only the most extraordinary circumstances.”

The plaintiffs cannot show sufficient circumstances and, besides, the government argues, it has already admitted the relevant facts.

The plaintiffs’ amended complaint filed Tuesday adds another 187 names to their suit, doubling the number to more than 350, according to a news release from Erin Powers, a spokesman for Just Well Law of Austin, Texas.

Their lawyers also allege the Navy only recently revealed a PFAS spill in 2019 at Red Hill, adding to another in November when 1,100 gallons of firefighting foam containing PFAS also spilled at the site.

Addressing the 2019 incident, the amended complaint states: “Although the spill of these dangerous ‘forever chemicals’ contaminated the soil, the government did not inform regulators nor warn residents. Even today, it denies any obligation to do so.”

PFAS, a so-called “forever chemical” that persists in the environment, may cause a higher risk of some cancers and lead to higher cholesterol levels and lower vaccine response in children, among other problems, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for past and future medical expenses, loss of property, emotional distress, loss of earning potential, loss of income, loss of life expectancy and other losses.

Trial in the case is scheduled for March.

author picture
Joseph Ditzler is a Marine Corps veteran and the Pacific editor for Stars and Stripes. He’s a native of Pennsylvania and has written for newspapers and websites in Alaska, California, Florida, New Mexico, Oregon and Pennsylvania. He studied journalism at Penn State and international relations at the University of Oklahoma.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now