Pearl Harbor military families on edge after fuel found in tap water

HONOLULU (AP) — Cheri Burness’ dog was the first to report something was wrong with their tap water. He stopped drinking it two weeks ago. Then Burness started having stomach cramps. Her 12-year-old daughter was nauseous.

“It just got worse every day,” said Burness, whose husband is in the Navy.

Their family is among hundreds of military families living near Pearl Harbor with similar complaints after the Navy’s water system was contaminated with oil.

The problems have plagued one of the most important naval bases in the world, which houses submarines, ships and the commander of US forces in the Indo-Pacific region. The problems could even threaten one of Honolulu’s most important aquifers and water sources.

The Navy said Thursday that tests had identified oil in its Red Hill well which is tapping into an aquifer near the base. Rear Admiral Blake Converse, deputy commander of the Pacific Fleet, told a town hall meeting that the Navy took this well offline on Sunday because it was the closest well to living areas. affected.

Converse said the Navy would flush clean water through its distribution system to remove residual petroleum products from the water. The process, followed by testing to ensure the water meets Environmental Protection Agency drinking standards, could take four to 10 days, he said.

The Navy will also investigate how contaminants entered the well and fix it, he said.

The crisis arose after the Navy said on November 22 that a mixture of water and fuel seeped into a fire suppression system drain line in a tunnel of a huge storage facility. of fuel 3 miles inside Pearl Harbor. The Navy said it removed about 14,000 gallons of the mixture and said the liquid did not leak into the environment.

The Navy said so far it has received calls about fuel smell or physical ailments from 680 homes in Navy housing and 270 in Army housing on the water system of the Marine. The Navy water system serves 93,000 people.

In the days after Thanksgiving, Burness’ daughter felt so sick she didn’t want to eat leftovers, including potatoes, turnips and carrots that had been boiled in water.

“‘I don’t want you to have to throw food away because I know it’s expensive, but I can’t eat this mom,'” Burness told her daughter.

On Sunday, Burness began seeing comments on social media from military families saying their tap water smelled like fuel. She didn’t smell it, but people told her to turn on her hot water and check. She did it and felt it too.

She told her family not to drink the water or wash her hair and face with it. She ordered private water delivery for $120 a month. The family mostly ate from plastic and paper plates and ate in restaurants.

On Monday, when she gave her dog bottled water, he immediately drank a full liter of it, then drank another two liters over the next 12 hours.

The Navy has since started distributing bottled water and said Marines would set up showers and laundry facilities connected to drinking water.

The army said it would help affected families move into hotels or new homes and the navy is working on a similar program. The Navy is also setting up dedicated medical clinics.

Burness said his stomach cramps were about 85% better, but not over. Her daughter’s nausea has improved. But they are now both complaining of respiratory problems.

Burness was frustrated with the Navy’s response, which she said ignored the families’ concerns. She pointed to a Monday email from the commander of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam that told residents the Navy was testing water samples, but there was no immediate indication that the water was not was not sure. His email said he and his staff were drinking water.

“All they had to do was say; “We see there is a problem, we don’t know what it is and we will do whatever it takes to find out and fix it.” That’s all they had to do. And instead we got, ‘No. This seems good. Smells good. Goodbye,” Burness said.

The Hawaii Naval Region, which oversees all Navy installations in the state, said the commander’s email was sent when “the number of concerns was still very low.”

“Since then, the Navy has aggressively increased sampling, testing, communication with families and others affected, and the establishment of expert response teams to address the issues we are facing. are all facing,” the command said in a statement.

The November 22 tunnel leak was just the latest involving the Red Hill Fuel Storage Facility, a complex of 20 underground fuel tanks built during World War II. Environmentalists and the Honolulu Municipal Water Department have raised concerns about aging tanks since the Navy revealed one leaked 27,000 gallons in 2014.

The reservoirs sit 100ft above an aquifer that supplies about a quarter of Honolulu’s water consumption, raising concerns that leaks could contaminate one of the city’s most crucial water sources. . It is the same aquifer exploited by the Red Hill well where the Navy has just detected oil.

Last month, the Sierra Club of Hawaii and other environmental groups called on the government to shut down the reservoirs.

Burness said her experience shook her confidence in the military. During her decades as a military spouse, she always believed in doing whatever it took to support “the mission.”

“It destroyed all of that,” she said. “I don’t have any confidence at this point, and I think that showed that they can’t be trusted.”