First active-duty troops file federal lawsuit over fuel-tainted tap water in Hawaii
Stars and Stripes November 10, 2023
FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — Three soldiers and two sailors have become the first active-duty service members to file suit in federal court seeking compensation for harm from the Navy’s fuel-contaminated tap water in their homes near Pearl Harbor in late 2021.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Hawaii, 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.
The law firms that filed the suit — Hosoda Law Group of Honolulu and Just Well Law of Austin, Texas — already represent hundreds of civilians who have joined a similar lawsuit filed in Hawaii federal court alleging a host of physical, mental and financial hardships as a result of the contamination.
All litigants in both lawsuits are current or former residents of military communities on or near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam whose tap water was tainted by a jet fuel spill at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility near the base.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in March 2022 order the facility permanently closed. A Defense Department task force is in the process of emptying 104 million gallons of fuel from the World War II-era storage tanks.
The new lawsuit argues that the plaintiffs were off duty and as such the harm that befell them due to tainted drinking water occurred while they were “performing no military mission,” the lawsuit states.
“Plaintiffs were off duty and on Thanksgiving holiday leave when the contamination reached their homes,” the lawsuit states. “None of them was performing a military act when they were contaminated. None of them was acting under official orders as they showered, bathed, drank, and cooked food with the contaminated water.”
“The Government is liable to them under the Federal Tort Claims Act, and no exceptions apply,” the lawsuit states.
The five plaintiffs are Army Col. Jessica Whaley; Army Maj. Amanda Feindt; Army Chief Warrant Officer Elizabeth Thompson-Watson; Navy Chief Petty Officer Brian Jessup; and Petty Officer 1st Class Dustin Wallace.
Whaley, her husband and four children had moved to the Aliamanu Military Reservation near the joint base in May 2021, according to the lawsuit.
“In November and December 2021, her family experienced symptoms of exposure, with Colonel Whaley’s symptoms so severe she reported to an emergency department,” the suit states. “Joint pain that began after her exposure has continued. Dental problems have become more common for her entire family who previously had no concerns at all.”
Whaley, who worked in the medical field, “watched her personal and professional life become unrecognizable” in the aftermath of the family’s exposure to the contamination, the lawsuit states.
Wallace lived at Radford Terrace, an off-base military housing community, with his wife and two children, ages 9 and 10, the lawsuit states. The family became sick during the Thanksgiving holiday in 2021, experiencing nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The children missed school days at a time as illnesses persisted.
“Multiple days, Petty Officer Wallace witnessed his daughter doubled over in pain and she was not always able to attend school,” the lawsuit states. “Instead of exhibiting compassion and understanding, the military opened up a truancy case against Petty Officer Wallace and his wife.”
Wallace explained the situation to personnel at Fleet and Family Support Services, who subsequently “assured him the case was resolved and closed,” the lawsuit states.
However, after relocating to Tennessee, the case was reopened, the lawsuit states.
“He and his wife have had to conduct intrusive mental health evaluations,” the suit states. “His command now treats him like a child neglecter all because of the military’s contamination of his water.”