Navy to open clinic after claims of lingering health issues one year after Hawaii fuel leak

FILE – People hold signs in front of the Hawaii state Capitol during a rally calling for the closure of the Navy’s Red Hill underground fuel storage facility near Pearl Harbor on Feb. 11, 2022, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones, File)

The Navy will open a medical clinic in Pearl Harbor for individuals with health problems believed to be tied to last year’s fuel leaks at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Hawaii that contaminated a water supply in Oahu, sickening thousands. 

“We’re establishing the Red Hill Clinic, which is a safe place where our dedicated care teams will work with our patients to document what is happening to them and together determine what the best path forward is for them and their family’s health care,” Jennifer Espiritu, the interim public health emergency officer for the Defense Health Agency, told reporters Monday.  

The clinic will go in a yet-to-be-announced military treatment facility on the island and be staffed with health care workers from the Navy, Army and Air Force, Espiritu said. It was planned after residents reported skin, neurological, gastrointestinal and respiratory problems after the leak.

The heath issues are believed to have stemmed from the fuel spills in May and November 2021 at Red Hill that released some 20,000 gallons of fuel, contaminating a nearby well used by 93,000 people including Hawaii military families, sickening nearly 6,000.  

The leak prompted the Pentagon to order the facility’s closure in March with the goal of fully defueling and shuttering it by June 2024. 

Since then, more than 100 people affected by the water contamination have joined in a lawsuit against the Navy. In the lawsuit, originally filed in August with the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii, the plaintiffs claim they suffered physically, emotionally and financially due to the fuel leak. Those in the lawsuit believe there are long-term health effects from drinking the fuel-tainted water.  

In the days and weeks after the leak, people living on base reported nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches and skin issues, with some forced to leave their homes and move into hotels.  

The U.S. military, however, has not confirmed a link between the fuel leak and any illnesses.  

“People are absolutely having health care problems, that I believe, and people deserve to be seen, that I believe with all my heart,” Espiritu said. “Whether the two are connected, I can’t — we can’t make that leap now. But what we want to happen is for people to come in so we can see them, find out what’s happening to them, and work them out thoroughly so if there is a connection, we can pursue it.” 

Espiritu allowed that the military has not been monitoring those who have claimed to have health issues after the Red Hill leak but reasoned that health effects that the agency would be looking for typically take decades to surface, such as cancer or some neurologic conditions.  

There is also scant research into how fuel exposure would affect one’s health long-term, Espiritu said.  

“There’s a limited number of studies on long-term exposure and definitely not long-term exposure in vulnerable populations like pregnant women, chronically sick people and children,” she said. “So, what was stated back in March, that we didn’t expect long-term effects, is true.” 

Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett, the commander of Navy Region Hawaii, acknowledged that the past year “has been extremely difficult for our military families and the people of Hawaii,” due to the leaks. 

“I acknowledge their anger, frustration, disappointment and distrust. I hear them loud and clear,” Barnett said Monday alongside Espiritu. 

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