The Navy will open a medical clinic in Pearl Harbor for people with health problems believed to be the result of last year’s fuel leaks at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Hawaii, which contaminated a water supply on Oahu and made thousands ill.
“We’re setting up Red Hill Clinic, a safe space where our dedicated treatment teams work with our patients to document what’s happening to them and figure out together what’s the best path for them and their family’s healthcare,” Jennifer Espiritu, interim emergency officer for the Defense Health Agency, told reporters on Monday.
The clinic will be housed in an unannounced military treatment facility on the island and will be staffed by navy, army and air force health workers, said Espiritu. It was planned after residents reported skin, neurology, gastrointestinal tract, and respiratory problems following the leak.
The health problems are thought to be due to the fuel spill in Red Hill in May and November 2021, which released around 20,000 gallons of fuel. This polluted a nearby well that was used by 93,000 people, including military families in Hawaii, making nearly 6,000 people ill.
The leak prompted the Pentagon to order the plant to close in March, with the aim of completely unfueling and closing it by June 2024.
Since then, more than 100 people affected by the water pollution have joined a lawsuit against the Navy. In the lawsuit, originally filed in the US District Court for the District of Hawaii in August, plaintiffs claim they suffered physically, emotionally, and financially as a result of the fuel leak. The plaintiffs believe that drinking the water contaminated with fuel has long-term health effects.
In the days and weeks following the leak, people living on the base reported nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, and skin problems, with some being forced to leave their homes and move to hotels.
However, the US military has confirmed no link between the fuel leak and any illnesses.
“People absolutely have health problems, I believe that, and people deserve to be seen, I believe that with all my heart,” said Espiritu. “Whether the two are connected, I can’t — we can’t make that leap now. But what we want is for people to come in so we can see them, find out what’s happening to them, and work it out thoroughly so that, if there’s a connection, we can track it down.”
Espiritu acknowledged that the military did not monitor those who claimed to have health problems following the Red Hill leak, but argued that health effects the agency would look for tend to take decades before they become visible, such as cancer or some neurological conditions.
There is also little research on how fuel exposure would affect health in the long term, said Espiritu.
“There are a limited number of studies on long-term exposure and definitely not on long-term exposure among vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, chronically ill people, and children,” she said. “So what was said back in March that we didn’t expect any long-term effects is true.”
Rear Admiral Stephen Barnett, commander of the Hawaii Navy Region, acknowledged that the past year was “extremely difficult for our military families and the people of Hawaii” due to the leaks.
“I recognize their anger, frustration, disappointment, and distrust. I hear them loud and clear,” Barnett said with Espiritu on Monday.