BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – KANEOHE, Hawaii — Families stationed on Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe have filed a class action lawsuit after battling illnesses they say are related to dangerous exposure to chemicals, mold, construction debris and dust in and around their assigned homes.
Ohana Military Communities and Forrest City Residential Management are named as defendants in a lawsuit filed April 3 by Hawaii attorneys Kyle Smith, Terrance Revere and Malia Nickison Beazley.
The lawsuit alleges breaches of contract, violation of the landlord-tenant code, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud and unfair and deceptive trade practices. The families are seeking full disclosure and damages. Forest City successfully petitioned to transfer the case to U.S. District Court and is petitioning the judge to dismiss it.
Cara Barber, whose own family was affected, is the lead plaintiff and spokeswoman for the military families. She said hundreds of “frightened” and “deeply concerned” military families who live — or have lived — at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Forest City housing contacted her after they learned she filed a complaint with HUD in 2011.
Barber’s daughter, Abby, was 14 months old when they moved there. Abby was a healthy child but, Barber said, her daughter began to experience chronic respiratory problems after moving to the base. In 2008, after two years there, Abby’s military pediatrician diagnosed her with intermittent asthma caused by the exposure to environmental toxin.
Barber asked Forest City to allow her family to move to housing away from the ongoing demolition but was denied. In the complaint, Barber says, the military contractor discriminated against her disabled child by failing to satisfy a request for reasonable housing.
After many months of delays, Forest City in March 2011 acted swiftly after learning Barber and other families affected by the construction were considering legal action. Forest City paid the Barbers’ moving expenses off base, but Barber said off-base housing three miles away was considerably more expensive and took them away from friends, their community and the inherent security of the base. Her daughter did make a remarkable recovery.
Problems for many of the military families involved in the lawsuit occurred between 2006 and 2012 when they were assigned to live in base housing adjacent to where Forest City was demolishing 2,400 homes. The homes, which contained mold, sat atop contaminated soil that contained high levels of chlordane, heptachlor, aheptachlor epoxide, dieldrin and aldrin. Forest City excavated that soil and build new homes directly upwind, emitting heavy demolition dust and debris, the lawsuit says.
Residents, children and their pets suffered chronic respiratory, neurological and skin disorders, and some children required emergency resuscitation, repeated trips to emergency rooms, excessive medical care and medications to simply breathe, Barber said.
Katie Eckroth, who worked as a nurse and paramedic for 18 years, said her son, who was a year old when her family moved to the base, developed severe breathing problems and began to regress mentally six months after moving into military housing.
“Luke was a normal healthy child when we moved here. But he stopped drinking, eating and talking. My husband and I were up all night holding him because he was so sick,” Eckroth said.
Their son had two surgeries for airway problems and suffered respiratory arrest in the hospital, Eckroth said, noting she believes the problems stemmed from the incessant dust and dirt that covered her house because of the demolition.
“Our child was inexplicably ill, and there was no reason for it. We saw other children around us getting sick, and it was extremely alarming,” Eckroth said.
Melissa Jones, whose husband is an enlisted sailor on active duty serving overseas, lived on the Marine Corps Base Hawaii for four years with their three young children, two of whom have a rare disorder that make their bones extremely breakable. Jones 7–year-old son developed a severe case of asthma while living on base, and she had numbness throughout half her body.
Walter Chun, former head of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the Pacific, will likely be a key witness in the case. He was a safety consultant on the housing construction project beginning in 2006 and performed tests on the soil, documenting the contaminated ground.
Chun confirmed that tests showed areas with high levels of chlordane, heptachlor and heptachlor epoxide — as much as 20 times the EPA’s acceptable level.
Chlordane is a pesticide, which the EPA banned in 1988 because exposure can cause liver damage, bronchitis, migraine headaches, asthma and cancer, Chun said.
Forest City was put in charge of demolition and construction of new military housing, and Forest City and the Hawaii Department of Health developed a soil-management plan, Chun said.
Col. Brian Annichiarico, commanding officer, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, who lives on base with his family, issued a statement on behalf of the base. It says the housing and soil are safe.
Chlordane remains in the soil, Annichiarico confirmed, after it was used legally between the 1940s until 1988 to protect homes from ground termites. Though it hasn’t been used for 26 years, chlordane breaks down slowly and could still be present in small amounts.
When the military housing was built in 2005, tests confirmed the presence of chlordane, but the levels were acceptable levels for the EPA and state Department of Health, Annichiarico said.
Part of the risk assessment by the military is controversial because it assumes families won’t be exposed to the chemical for more than six years, assuming they will be assigned elsewhere.
Several families interviewed for this story said they expected government agencies to monitor the environmental, health and safety concerns and were devastated to learn little, if any, such oversight occurred, despite numerous complaints filed with the Department of Health, HUD, the military and the military’s private contractors.
Chun filed a complaint with the state Department of Health on March 5, but the DOH responded March 28 that it did not conduct oversight of that project, as well as the other military family housing projects, and has no information about soil-management practices to protect the military families.
“I believe military families should have the right to safe housing. If for any reason our military families could be exposed to hazardous substances in the privatized military housing they are assigned, they have the right to know – that information should be fully disclosed to military families,” Barber said.
Reach Malia Zimmerman at Malia@hawaiireporter.com