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Families in Hawaii fighting for compensation from Red Hill fuel leak

Thousands of families in Hawaii are fighting for compensation from the U.S. Navy for what they call a poisoning of their water.
Families in Hawaii fighting for compensation from Red Hill fuel leak
Posted at 1:48 PM, Sep 01, 2023

When Norine Tuck moved to Hawaii, she was trying to restart, to escape another life.

"You know, to hit the reset button and to start a new life and to quote live happily ever after," she said. 

Little did she know, she'd wind up stuck in a fresh nightmare from which there is no escape.

Just a few months into her new life on Oahu, Norine started feeling lethargic — more than normal. Headaches became regular.

"I just thought, well, you know, maybe you're just tired because you've done a lot in a short period of time," she said. 

Amanda Zawierusynski had been living in Hawaii for years due to her husband's military orders.

"That weekend our house smelled like a gas station. I called the emergency line for housing and they informed me that I was the third call," said Zawierusynski.

It was November 2021, and Tuck, Zawierusynski and thousands of others were smelling jet fuel in their water.

Thousands of gallons of it, in fact. They would soon learn it leaked from the Red Hill bulk fuel storage facility up the hill from their homes and made its way into water lines maintained by the U.S. Navy.

But that first night, as they tidied their homes from the mayhem of Thanksgiving celebrations, they didn't know what to think. You couldn't say the same of Ernie Lau. As the manager of Oahu's Board of Water Supply, he's the man in charge of the island's public water infrastructure. He'd been outspoken for years about the threat he saw from the Red Hill facility.

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"Basically, deep underground they hollowed out the mountain and they built these vertical tanks 250 feet high, 100 feet in diameter and each can hold 12.5 million gallons of fuel, and the bottoms of the tanks are only 100 feet above our drinking water aquifer. And these tanks, the only thing keeping the fuel in these tanks is basically a quarter-inch steel plate that was welded together back in World War II," said Lau. 

The fuel residents were smelling had spilled from Red Hill eight days before. In the initial hours and days of the leak, the Navy denied anything was seriously wrong — even internally.

The Navy's own investigation of what happened — now public — recounts a sloppy, confused initial response to the spill with uncertainty about what had actually spilled and who was in charge of the response.

The commander of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam insisted the water was clean, pointing to results from locally-conducted water tests. And at a town hall with residents alarmed that their water smelled like fuel, Navy leaders insisted it was safe. "We recovered that fuel immediately on Sunday afternoon, the 20th. There was no indication that it made it into the well or into the drinking water," said Rear Adm. Timothy Kott.

More sensitive tests would show 350 times the safe level of fuel contaminants in the closed water shaft. Thousands of gallons of jet fuel from the Red Hill storage facility was in the Navy's water lines, including those servicing former military housing where civilians like Norine lived.

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"I started having skin issues like rashes and eczema and my eyes were burning. My children and I started having headaches, nausea, vomiting," said Tuck.

The military commander who insisted the water was clean and that he and his team were drinking it posted a public apology.

"We were wrong. I apologize with my whole heart that we trusted those initial tests. If there was one day I had a chance to do over, it would be that day," he said.

Over the coming weeks, families living near Pearl Harbor would find themselves unable to use their water to drink, cook or bathe.

For many on Oahu, the impact of that initial exposure to contaminated water still hasn't left. 

Kristina Baehr represents 3,000 Oahu residents impacted by the spill.

"Our clients were saying, 'The water is not safe, the water smells.' And the Navy literally said, 'Don't worry about it, it's safe.'" said Baehr. 

The military compensated families for temporary relocation costs and expenses like meals out. Amanda Zawierusynski, for one, has thousands of dollars in medical bills from complications stemming from the Red Hill water contamination. She spent more than a year trying to get adequate treatment for the impact of the fuel. She finally found it — in Texas, where she now lives with her kids.

"If I had gotten the medical care I needed, if they had taken this seriously and if they didn't poison us, we wouldn't be here today. We wouldn't be in this situation, we'd be a happy, athletic, go-lucky family," said Zawierusynski.

In March of 2022, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered Red Hill closed and its fuel drained. The EPA monitors water quality on the island. Their tests come back clean now, but Norine Tuck doesn't buy it. Even in her new home, she saw something fishy in the water.

Whether or not there is still fuel in the water, trauma remains in the angst of Norine's young daughter, whose skin sensitivity to the water has fed anxiety that, some days, keeps her away from school.

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