In November 2021, approximately 72,000 liters of fuel spilled at the US Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, Oʻahu Island, contaminating the drinking water for 93,000 people. Eighteen months later, many of those exposed are still suffering serious illnesses; here are the stories of three survivors of the Red Hill environmental catastrophe.
Amanda Zawieruszynski: “It’s like the military is hoping we’ll die.”
Amanda Zawieruszynski is the wife of a US Navy member and mother of three children; she lives in military housing in Honolulu.
“On 28 November 2021, I arrived home after running some errands and the house smelt like a gas station. I telephoned the emergency maintenance operator and they told me I was the third person to call that day with the same problem. When I checked social media, many people living in the neighbourhood were posting about it, too.”
Despite the complaints, in the following days, the commander of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, sent out an email reassuring residents that their water was safe to drink.
Amanda’s head and throat were in agony, so she visited the Emergency Room where the doctor diagnosed her with chemical burns to the mouth.
In the following days, the Navy admitted a fuel spill at Red Hill had contaminated the drinking water it supplied to military housing. It evacuated the Zawieruszynski family and their neighbors to hotels, some of them infested with bugs.
For months, Amanda suffered from severe headaches and intense pain in her mouth and throat – but military doctors refused to provide her with the healthcare she requested. “At one point, two high-ranking military doctors mocked me. One asked if I had been eating spicy food and the other dismissed the problem as only an ulcer,” she said.
When Amanda was finally able to visit a civilian doctor, they determined that the jet fuel had damaged one of the main nerves in her brain. Meanwhile, military doctors ignored her complaints about gynecological problems until she ended up requiring emergency surgery.
“It’s like the military is hoping we’ll die so they don’t need to deal with us,” she said.
Amanda’s three children have experienced health problems, too, including headaches, memory loss, and nosebleeds; her eldest daughter, Vanessa, sometimes wakes up with her pillow soaked in blood. The contamination has also damaged the children psychologically and educationally.
One day, Amanda was so sick that her daughter told her she thought she would die; that moment convinced Amanda no longer to stay silent. She began speaking out about how the military had poisoned her family – and she started demanding accountability.
“The military is not here for the people or the service members. They are an institution and they are here to protect it. They’ll protect themselves before they protect you.”
Vanessa, too, said the experiences of the past months have changed her outlook on life. “I’ve developed trust issues. I don’t trust the Navy. When I first arrived here, it felt like paradise. Now I regret ever coming here; I can’t wait to leave.”
Monica Wollner: “I want us civilians to be heard.”
Monica Wollner and her children used to be active members in their community at Kapilina Beach Homes, Iroquois Point, visiting the nearby beach and enjoying paddle-boarding. But all that changed in late-November 2021 when acute kidney pain forced her to the Emergency Room; she had never experienced such problems before, and the doctors could not determine the cause.
In the following days, the once-healthy Wollner family’s health deteriorated as they suffered vomiting, diarrhea, and fatigue. “After taking showers, my daughter would break out in sores all over her body,” Wollner said.
Initially the Navy did not acknowledge that the 1,400 homes in Wollner’s neighbourhood – a former military housing area – were still supplied by its water system. Even after it admitted so, the response by the military – and the landlord – has left Wollner angry and disappointed. “In the spring of 2022, we were given bottled water for three months but after that they stopped. Now, months after the spill, we’re still living like we’re camping in our own home. We’re paying $200 a month on bottled water to brush our teeth, cook and wash dishes.”
Wollner continues to rely on tap water to take showers – but when she does, she said, the floor becomes slippery with oil.
All the Wollners still suffer from fatigue and stomach problems; what worries her most is the long-term health impact on her children, particularly the risk of reproductive disorders.
“I can’t get the military to acknowledge what we’ve been going through. When they have public meetings, I would like to hand them a jug of water from my kitchen and ask them to drink it. Not one of them would put that water to their lips. I want us civilians to be heard.”
Many of Monica’s neighbours have already moved away; when they opened up their packing crates at their new homes, their possessions stank of fuel. Now, Wollner herself is also planning to leave. “When I move, I will need to replace everything I own,” she said.
Sheri LeDue: “Don’t live anywhere near a military base. Ever.”
For Sheri LeDue, the first sign that something was wrong with her house at Kapilina Beach Homes, Iroquois Point, was in late-November 2021 when her cats refused to drink the bowls of tap water she set out for them.
Then, a few days later, she herself noticed the smell.
“I had worked for the airline industry so right away I recognized it was jet fuel. I’d turn on the tap and the whole house would fill up with the smell,” she said.
When LeDue did the laundry, her clothes came out stinking so badly that she had to throw them away. The smell of fuel also penetrated the plastic in her tableware and kitchen appliances, forcing her to dispose of them, too.
Initially, the Navy denied that it supplied water to the community. Then, after acknowledging the homes were on its water line, its countermeasures surprised LeDue. “They opened the fire hydrants and our faucets then flushed the water into the yards and streets. Now our lawns were all contaminated, too,” she said.
While the military helped service members by relocating them into temporary hotel accommodation, it only offered civilians like LeDue a small daily hand-out that was insufficient to meet the costs of a hotel room or food. The community’s management company has been equally as unsupportive, said LeDue, refusing to admit any liability and even, at one point, raising tenants’ rent.
LeDue’s health has been devastated by her exposure. Today she continues to suffer from stomach problems, tremors, and brain fog; even tasks such as babysitting her 17-month grandson leaves her exhausted, she said.
As recently as the end of January, LeDue said, tests showed the community’s water was still contaminated with petroleum.
“The management company and the military do not want to admit liability for poisoning civilians in this community. How dare they do this to us – shame on them! I want to tell people ‘Don’t live anywhere near a military base. Ever.’”
Responding to a request for comment, a representative for Kapilina Beach Homes said, “We took action to help our residents feel as safe and secure as possible, including by providing each household with a $1,000 grant to help with disruption-related costs.” The company provided water coolers, laundry and shower services, and the option to terminate leases without penalty, said the representative.
At the time of publication, the US Navy had not responded to a request for comment.