Three residents of military housing in Hawaii are suing their privatized housing landlords because of the tainted water in their communities.
The lawsuit, filed Dec. 31 in Hawaii’s First Circuit Court, alleges the families have been “forcibly evicted from their homes due to contaminated drinking water caused by fuel leaks” associated with the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.
The residents are seeking reimbursement of the rent they paid plus unspecified damages.
The lawsuit names Ohana Military Communities LLC; Hunt MH Property Management LLC; Island Palm Communities LLC; and Hickam Communities LLC as defendants, as well as unnamed individuals who are “Doe defendants” associated with the companies.
The plaintiffs who live in the housing are Michael Casey, Payton Lamb and Jamie Williams. Information was not immediately available about their military status; there are military as well as civilian families living in the homes. The attorneys seek class-action status in the lawsuit, to represent the thousands of other families affected by the fuel contamination of the Navy water system. Although the three plaintiffs only live in three of the many housing communities in the immediate area managed by the four defendants named in the lawsuit, the suit says they are suing on behalf of all “similarly situated” residents.
The Navy has said about 3,000 families on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and the Army’s Aliamanu Military Reserve have left their homes because of the water crisis and have moved to hotels at the government’s expense, to include payments for meals and incidental expenses. The Navy is conducting a flushing of the water system and individual homes.
The lawsuit filed in the state court doesn’t name the Navy as a defendant.
On Nov. 28, a number of military families reported smelling fuel odors and seeing an oily film in their tap water. Although there were conflicting reports initially, the Navy confirmed Dec. 3 that petroleum had been found in the water. The Navy has told Hawaii officials it believes the contaminated tap water that went to Hawaii military households came from a one-time spill of jet fuel in November.
Under the terms of the lease, tenants agree to pay rent in exchange for safe and habitable housing provided by the landlords — which includes the provision of potable water, complying with all state and local laws for health and safety, the tenants contend in the lawsuit.
“The water supply for residential housing leased to plaintiffs, however, has not been sufficiently protected from the risk of fuel contamination associated with repeated leaks of petroleum fuel from the [Navy’s] Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility,” the lawsuit states.
Thus, the landlords have breached their lease agreements with the tenants by failing to provide safe drinking water, the complaint alleges. The tenants want repayment of their rent, which is collected from military families in the form of their monthly Basic Allowance for Housing, plus other unspecified damages.
Families in 12 different communities on the Navy water system are affected — six Navy, four Air Force and two Army housing communities. Some families have stayed in their homes for various reasons, and are being provided potable water, shower facilities and drop-off laundry service.
“We cannot speak to either the merits or contents of the suit itself as it is still being reviewed, but we can assure you that our commitment to our residents’ well being is always our first priority,” said officials with Island Palm Communities and Hickam Communities, in a statement to Military Times. Lendlease is the parent company of those communities.
“From the very beginning of the fuel spill from the Navy’s Red Hill fuel storage facility, Island Palm Communities and Hickam Communities have been, and will continue to be, committed to service the needs of the military and our residents to the best of our ability.”
Hunt Companies, the parent company of Ohana Military Communities and Hunt MH Property Management, does not comment on pending legal legal matters, said Brian Stann, president of Hunt Military Communities, in a statement to Military Times.
“The Navy is the water provider for the community and is working with the Hawaii Department of Health and the [Environmental Protection Agency Region 9] to resolve the water issues,” he stated. “We have been supporting our Navy partners in their efforts to resolve this situation.”
“Our teams have been working tirelessly to support our residents during this difficult time,” Stann said, noting that residents’ health and well being is their top priority. “We have continuously communicated with and provided support and resources to our impacted residents. We are acting as host and liaison between the Navy and residents by providing updates and information through our communication channels, and are participating in the Navy’s town halls in our community centers.
“We are facilitating staging and logistics to support the Navy’s efforts, while working to deliver the highest-quality property management standards throughout our communities at Ohana,” he said.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has said he is “personally monitoring” the Hawaii water situation. At the request of the Hawaii congressional delegation, the DoD Inspector General has opened an investigation into the management and oversight of the Navy’s Red Hill fuel storage facility.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.