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3 active-duty service members file claims against federal government over jet fuel leak: "Poisoned by the Navy in their own homes"

Navy investigating Hawaii fuel leak
U.S. Navy investigating Hawaii fuel leak linked to contaminated tap water 02:26

When Army Major Amanda Feindt had the chance to move her husband, toddler and baby to Hawaii in 2021 to be stationed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, she thought it would be a "dream location to be stationed in paradise." But it turned out to be a nightmare – she says her family's on-base home was being supplied with "toxic water" by the Navy. 

In May of that year, 19,000 gallons of jet fuel had leaked from the Navy's Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Honolulu. Some of it wasn't cleaned up and ended up in the base's water distribution system, impacting Feindt and roughly 93,000 other military family members and civilians.

"We didn't know anything about drinking water contamination or consider that the people that I worked for, dedicated my life and risked my life...would lie to us," she told CBS News. "...There's this sense of institutional betrayal." 

A service member for nearly two decades, Feindt has now joined two other active-duty members to file rare legal claims against the federal government over the spill that they say left them "poisoned by the Navy in their own homes." 

Active-duty military service members aren't usually able to sue military branches in federal court, but Feindt, Army Colonel Jessica Whaley and Navy Ensign Koda Freeman believe that this situation should be an exception. On Monday, they filed pre-litigation administrative claim forms, saying they plan to file a lawsuit in Honolulu "as soon as possible." 

"Our military service members have enough responsibility in their service to the nation. They cannot be mission-ready if the government's negligence has made them sick with toxic water," their attorney, Kristina Baehr, said in a press release, adding that Monday's filing is more important than ever. 

"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." 

A Navy spokesperson told CBS News that "the Navy does not comment on litigation." 

Whaley, Feindt and Freeman were all stationed in O'ahu, Hawaii, at the time of the contamination. 

Whaley said she had to be taken to an emergency room "with severe toxic exposure symptoms," according to a press release from her legal representatives. Freeman experienced something similar, with the press release saying that after he drank the contaminated water, his entire family's health declined, "including with the sudden resurgence of a well-managed seizure disorder with his wife." 

"After a Congressional inquiry regarding his wife's medically safety, Freeman faced targeted retaliation on the job," the press release says. "Their family later evacuated O'ahu to better manage their health issues."

Before Feindt's family got to O'ahu and moved to on-base housing in a home on Ford Island, she said she, her husband, their toddler and their baby were all "super healthy." 

"We thought, 'what an amazing opportunity to be part of that history and to raise our kids in this home.' We just felt so blessed," she said. "However, almost immediately...we started getting sick." 

She said her husband suddenly started to get migraines and double vision. Her baby son developed a cough that would not let up and started getting rashes on the lower half of his body that she alleged were essentially "chemical burns" from jet fuel leeching into the water. They were "always sick," she said, with nausea, vomiting and lethargy. 

It was later revealed that fuel from the May spill was stuck in a fire suppression recovery drain line that ended up in groundwater sump on Nov. 20, 2021. A day after that release, the Navy issued a statement saying there were "no signs or indication" the fuel had gone into the environment and that "drinking water remains safe to drink." By the next week, they had received dozens of complaints, and by Nov. 30, the Hawaii Department of Health urged Navy water system users to avoid it. 

Feindt's family kept getting sick, and when they would go to Tripler Army Medical Center, they were allegedly told that all doctors there could do is treat the symptoms and were essentially told, "you'll be fine," Feindt said. None of them were initially tested for petroleum toxicity, and they went on to be hospitalized multiple times. 

The military, she said, "never came to check on us." Eventually, she reached out to the Secretary of the Army asking that her family be moved, citing the constant hospitalizations and even retaliation. 

"As a field grade officer, I've been charged with the duty to speak up...We've been charged with the duty to speak up with people who've been harmed, you've trained me to do this," she told CBS News. "And this is exactly what I'm doing. My brother and sisters in arms and their innocent families have been harmed here." 

A year after getting to O'ahu, Feindt's family was able to leave and she was restationed in Colorado. But even then the health issues persisted. So far, Feindt says she, her husband and their kids have been to over 150 doctors appointments just in Colorado. 

Feindt's husband and kids are currently being represented by Baehr in a separate lawsuit, in which more than 100 U.S. military family members and civilians say the spill resulted in seizures, gastrointestinal disorders, neurological disorders, rashes, thyroid abnormalities, and other issues. 

"I had no idea that our water was contaminated or that the air we breathed was full of toxic and harmful chemicals. But the Navy knew," Feindt said. "...As a community, we refuse to be betrayed and left behind by the country/institution we have dedicated and risked our lives for. ... The military has harmed thousands of families, they now have an obligation to make it right."

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