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Military families in Hawaii still have health concerns after jet fuel spill into Pearl Harbor water system

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

A 4-year-old girl is one of thousands exposed to contaminated water after jet fuel tainted the water supply of the Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam Navy facility in Hawaii in 2021.

She woke up with a cough that never went away 13 days after the water was contaminated, mom Brittany Traeger said. Now she gets hour-long nebulizer treatments for her respiratory problems and, at least twice a day, the girl wears a vibrating vest to clear her lungs. Her parents are among 2,000 military families suing the government, alleging they were harmed by negligence at Red Hill, a fuel storage facility near the Pearl Harbor military base. 

"There's a body of government that failed," Traeger said. "They contaminated our water, they lied to us, they did not protect us, and they did not intervene."

What happened at Red Hill

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, construction was already underway to protect the Navy's fuel reserves from an aerial attack. It took a little less than three years, with up to 4,000 men working there at the peak of construction, Vice Admiral John Wade said. 

Seven miles of tunnels cut through volcanic rock at the Red Hill fuel storage facility. The storage site, once a secret facility, provided fuel for the Pacific Fleet and its planes for 80 years. Wade showed 60 Minutes correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi one of 20 tanks at the facility. It 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," Wade said.

Vice Admiral John Wade
Vice Admiral John Wade and his team worked on defueling efforts.  60 Minutes

Decades later, the testament to American resolve became a monumental liability after jet fuel sprayed from a cracked pipe inside Red Hill on Nov. 20, 2021. The fuel, 20,000 gallons of it, was trapped in a plastic pipe. The weight caused the pipe to sag and a trolley hit it. 

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

The workers who responded didn't have the right tools to contain the spill, according to Navy investigators. 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.

What families were told after the spill

The day after the spill, 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. 

Traeger lived on base, about two and a half miles from Red Hill, along with her daughter and husband, who's a Navy chief petty officer. 

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

She said she began to feel sick a week after the spill. She had a cough, swollen tonsils and vertigo. 

Brittany Traeger
Brittany Traeger  60 Minutes

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

Traeger said she stopped using water and stopped taking baths, doing the same for her daughter — just because she had a bad feeling, not because anyone told her to. The Navy had given out an email address for people to contact if they wanted their water tested. 

"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," Traeger said. "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.

Navy reverses course 

After 12 days and four statements assuring residents the water was fine, 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 the Hawaii Department of Health revealed jet fuel levels 350 times higher than what the state considers safe.

Richelle Dietz, who lives on base with her husband, a Navy chief petty officer, and their two children, was so sick to the stomach when she heard the news that she threw up. 

"Because my kids had just been poisoned," Dietz said. 

Richelle Dietz
Richelle Dietz 60 Minutes

Within a month of the spill, 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. 

The water system was flushed over three months and bottled water was brought in. Three months passed before Pearl Harbor's drinking water was deemed safe again. 

The Navy's own investigations into the spill described "cascading failures" and revealed poor training, supervision and ineffective leadership at Red Hill that fell "unacceptably short of Navy standards."

Closing Red Hill down

Hawaiians have raised concerns about the threat of smaller leaks at Red hill for the last decade. 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 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. 

"We've got to defuel. That's the imminent threat," Wade said. "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."

The potential threat to Honolulu's water supply lurking underground 04:48

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. 

Meredith Berger, an assistant secretary of the Navy, said the Navy has been accountable. 

"It's accountability within the system that we have established," Berger said. "We have heard that this was too long, and that maybe it didn't go far enough."

Grappling with health concerns and suing the government 

Two thousand military families agree the Navy didn't go far enough and are suing the government. The lawsuit is set to go to trial on Monday.

Dietz, who's joined the suit, feels angry and betrayed. Her husband has been in the Navy for almost 18 years and the family has moved across the country and across oceans for his work. 

"We gave so much of our life to the Navy for them to ignore warnings," Dietz said. "And then we were directly and blatantly lied to about it. 

Her daughter's tonsils became inflamed days after the spill and her son started suffering from chronic headaches, she said. The mom says neither of them had those problems before November 2021. 

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. 

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. 

Navy leadership has apologized for the spill, but has not said that the contaminated water is the cause of the ongoing illnesses. It did set up a clinic on base to collect data and treat anyone who believes they have health issues related to the tainted water

Berger was asked if those services would still be available down the road. 

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

"That is part of why we are making sure that we're collecting that information to inform future actions and what the requirements are for those types of needs and care," Berger said. 

"I want to be careful, because I don't do the health care part of things," Berger said. "I don't want  to speak outside of where I have any authority or decision."

When 60 Minutes followed up with the Defense Department, it said it is reviewing the question of long-term health care for military families, including more than 3,100 children. 

The Navy is conducting daily tests at Pearl Harbor and says it is confident there is no fuel in the tap water.

Traeger shared what accountability looks like for her. 

"A lifelong-care plan for me, my family, and the people affected," she said. "And that will restore my faith in my nation."

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