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Military families feel betrayed over Navy response to jet fuel-tainted water at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii base

Military families say base's water was unsafe
Military families in Hawaii say water tainted by jet fuel made them sick | 60 Minutes 13:18

The U.S. military takes pride in protecting its own. That's why military families we met in Hawaii told us they feel so betrayed.

Two years ago, there was a fuel spill close to the drinking water system at the Pearl Harbor base in Hawaii. Navy leadership assured thousands of military families that the tap water was safe.

But nearly two weeks after the spill, parents learned the truth: the water they drank or used to bathe their kids contained jet fuel.

Tonight - you'll hear from some of the families who say the jet fuel tainted water made them sick. But first – we'll go to where the water crisis at Pearl Harbor began.

From the air, the historic naval base is easy to spot. Eight miles from Honolulu… sparkling blue waters host battle gray ships…and memorials to those killed by Japan's surprise attack in 1941. 

What you can't see is the once secret storage site that provided fuel for the Pacific fleet and its planes for 80 years. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: It doesn't look like much from the outside.

Vice Admiral John Wade: Wait 'till you get inside.

Vice Admiral John Wade led us through the Red Hill bulk fuel storage facility…seven miles of tunnels cut through volcanic rock – built to hold 250 million gallons of fuel.

Vice Admiral John Wade
Vice Admiral John Wade 60 Minutes

Vice Admiral John Wade: So this is one of the tanks.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Oh my gosh. 

That black hole is a steel lined fuel tank so deep it's hard to see the bottom 20 stories below.

Vice Admiral John Wade: To just show you how enormous this is, this tank holds 12.5 million gallons. And to give you kind of a reference point, the Statue of Liberty, not the base, but the statue itself, can fit in here with enough room.

And this is just one of the 20 tanks hidden here.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, construction was already underway to protect the Navy's fuel reserves from an aerial attack. 

Vice Admiral John Wade: The decision was made to embark on a herculean task to build a bulk storage fuel facility inside a mountain in secrecy.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And how long did that take to do?

Vice Admiral John Wade: It was a little less than three years. At its peak, there were about 4,000 men working here.

But this testament to American resolve became a monumental liability after this…

That's jet fuel spraying from a cracked pipe. The video was recorded by a worker inside Red Hill on November  20th of 2021.    

The fuel…20,000 gallons of it – was trapped in a plastic pipe. The weight caused the pipe to sag…this trolley hit it…

And jet fuel spewed for 21 hours…. close to the well that supplied drinking water for 93,000 people on and around the base at Pearl Harbor.

Sharyn Alfonsi: According to Navy investigators, the workers who responded didn't have the right tools to contain the spill. They also assumed there was no danger to the drinking water. They were wrong. At least 5,000 gallons of jet fuel drained into the tunnel floor and into the navy water system.

The next day the Navy issued a press release about the incident and told the 8,400 families living in military housing "...the water remains safe to drink."  Even though the Navy had not tested the water yet.  A week later residents began to notice a problem.

Sharyn Alfonsi: When did you get this sense that there was something wrong with the water?

Brittany Traeger: My husband came into the kitchen and washed his hands and said, "Gosh, the water smells like I just did an oil change like, the water smells weird."

Brittany Traeger
Brittany Traeger  60 Minutes

Brittany Traeger lived on base…about two and half miles from Red Hill …with her daughter and husband, who is a Navy chief petty officer. Traeger says she began to feel sick a week after the spill. 

Brittany Traeger: I had a cough. My tonsils were very swollen. I remember a very distinct moment where I was walking to the car and I had vertigo so bad that I had to hold onto the car. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: The smell was that overwhelming?

Brittany Traeger: Uh-huh.

In an email to residents nine days after the spill, the commanding officer of the base reassured residents "...there are no immediate indications that the water is not safe. My staff and I are drinking the water…"

Sharyn Alfonsi: Did you stop using water? Did you stop taking baths?

Brittany Traeger: So, I did, my daughter did…

Sharyn Alfonsi: Just because you had a bad feeling, not 'cause anybody told you to.

Brittany Traeger: Correct. They gave us an email address that we could send an email to if we wanted to have our water tested. So, I emailed those people who then emailed me a phone number that I should call. And I called that phone number for days and it was just busy. They were overwhelmed and inundated with reports.

Ten days after the spill, there were more than 200 reports from six neighborhoods across the base of strong fuel odor coming from kitchen and bathroom faucets. But the Navy said its initial tests did not detect fuel.

Brittany Traeger: It defied logic, you know? Even though there was a leak and even though our water smelled like jet fuel and even though there was sheen on it, they continued to say, " The tests are coming back negative."

After 12 days…and four statements assuring residents the water was not contaminated with fuel…the Navy reversed course…on Dec. 2, 2021 it announced more comprehensive tests conducted by the Navy had detected jet fuel in the water.   

Three weeks after the spill, tests from Hawaii's Department of Health revealed jet fuel levels 350-times higher than what the state considers safe. 

Richelle Dietz lives on base with her husband, a Navy chief petty officer….and their two children.

Richelle Dietz: Jet fuel's not something that you would even think could happen to be in your water.

Sharyn Alfonsi: How were people reacting to the news?

Richelle Dietz: I was so sick to my stomach from that news that I actually threw up when I heard.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Because why?

Richelle Dietz: Because my kids had just been poisoned.

Richelle Dietz
Richelle Dietz 60 Minutes

Within a month the Navy set up medical tents for residents. Some complained of stomach problems, severe fatigue and coughing. The military moved more than 4,000 families to hotels. 

Small studies of military personnel suggest jet fuel exposure can lead to neurological and breathing problems.

But the long-term impact of ingesting jet fuel is unknown because it's so unlikely to ever happen.   

Richelle Dietz told us days after the spill her daughter's tonsils became inflamed, and her son started suffering from chronic headaches.

Sharyn Alfonsi: I can hear people saying, "Tonsils, headaches. Kids get that stuff. How do you know it's related?"

Richelle Dietz: Um, because they never had it before November of 2021. It wasn't-- an issue. 

It's unclear how many got sick.  But of 2,000 people who responded to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – more than 850 sought medical care. The water system was flushed over three months…and bottled water brought in. 

Brittany Traeger said her 4 year old now suffers respiratory problems which require hour-long treatments…at least two times a day that includes a nebulizer and this vibrating vest to clear her lungs. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: Tell me about your daughter's health.

Brittany Traeger: Thirteen days after the contamination, after our water smelled like jet fuel, my daughter woke up in a hotel with a cough…and it pretty much never went away. 

Three months passed before Pearl Harbor's drinking water was deemed safe again. The Navy's own investigations into the spill…described quote "cascading failures" and revealed poor training, supervision, and ineffective leadership at red hill that fell "...unacceptably short of navy standards..."

For the last 10 years, Hawaiians have raised concerns about the threat from smaller leaks at Red Hill.

The primary water supply for the city of Honolulu is 100 feet below the Navy complex. 

In March of 2022, the secretary of defense ordered Red Hill permanently closed. 

Vice Admiral John Wade was brought in to get the 104 million gallons of fuel out of the tanks and move it safely to sites around the Pacific. 

Vice Admiral John Wade: We've gotta defuel. That's the imminent threat. There's ongoing and will be continued long-term environmental remediation to restore the aquifer, the land and surrounding area. And then there's also a medical component for those that have been impacted.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You view now this thing that was a lifeline for the fleet is a threat.

Vice Admiral John Wade: That's right. That's right.

In six months, Wade's team in Hawaii successfully removed almost all of the fuel.  But it took two years before the Navy issued disciplinary letters to 14 officers involved in the spill response…including, five admirals.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Was anyone fired because of this?

Meredith Berger
Meredith Berger, an assistant secretary of the Navy 60 Minutes

Meredith Berger: At the time that the accountability came through, uh-- we had officers that had already retired. And so uh -- they had already separated from service.

Meredith Berger is an assistant secretary of the Navy. We met her at the Pentagon in November. She told us the Navy has been accountable. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: We're talking about 20,000 gallons of-- fuel leak, 90,000 people had their water contaminated. It looks like people retired, or were reassigned, and no one was fired. How is that accountability?

Meredith Berger: It's accountability within the system that we have established. And we have heard that this was too long, um and that maybe it didn't go far enough.

Two thousand military families agree the Navy didn't go far enough and are suing the government. The Traegers and Dietzs have joined the lawsuit alleging they were harmed by negligence at Red Hill. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: Are you angry that it happened? Or are you angry at what happened after? 

Richelle Dietz: It's a little bit of anger, but it's also this feeling of betrayal.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What do you mean, betrayal?

Richelle Dietz: So my husband has been in for almost 18 years. We have moved our family cross country, cross oceans. We gave so much of our life to the Navy for them to ignore warnings and then we were directly and blatantly lied to about it. 

Navy leadership has apologized for the spill but has not said that the contaminated water is the cause of the ongoing illnesses.

The Navy did set up a clinic on base to collect data and treat anyone who believes they have health issues related to the tainted water. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: What happens in five or 10 or 15 years? Will those services still be available to these families?

Meredith Berger: So that's-- that is part of why, um, we are making sure that we're collecting that information to inform future actions and what the requirements are for those types of uh, needs and care.

Sharyn Alfonsi: That doesn't sound like a guarantee of care in the future.

Meredith Berger: And I wanna be careful, 'cause I don't do the health care part of things. And so I-- I don't wanna speak outside of, um, of-- of where I have any authority or decision.

So we followed up with the Defense Department…which told us it's reviewing the question of long term health care for military families…including more than 3,100 children.

Two years after the spill, some residents have reported water with a smell or sheen. The Navy is conducting daily tests at Pearl Harbor and says it is confident there is no fuel in the tap water.

Richelle Dietz is still using bottled water. The lawsuit she joined with Brittany Traeger and the other military families is scheduled to go to trial tomorrow.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What is the remedy that you want?

Brittany Traeger: In our family it's restoring my faith in our nation.

Sharyn Alfonsi: That's a big thing to say.

Brittany Traeger: There's a body of government that failed. They contaminated our water, they lied to us, they did not protect us, and they did not intervene. And accountability looks like a lifelong care plan for me, my family, and the people affected. And that will restore my faith in my nation.

Produced by Guy Campanile. Associate producer, Lucy Hatcher. Broadcast associate, Erin DuCharme. Edited by Michael Mongulla.

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