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Water contamination at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii forces over 1,000 military families from their homes

A tunnel inside the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Jan. 26, 2018. (U.S. Navy/AP)
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More than a thousand military families stationed in Hawaii have fled their homes and reported illnesses from apparent petroleum contamination in the base’s water supply, leaving some fearful of long-term health consequences as senior officials scramble to address the burgeoning health emergency.

The families at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam have lambasted the military’s response so far, complaining in town halls that uniformed commanders and top civilian leadership were slow to respond after reports that foul-smelling tap water bearing an oily sheen was linked to symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea and intense headaches.

Officials said last week that one drinking water source at the base — an aquifer some 100 feet below a Navy fuel-storage facility with a history of leaks — was confirmed to be tainted with petroleum. About 2,700 homes in 10 communities are in the affected area, the Navy said.

People at the base, which is hosting ceremonies to commemorate Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, described Marines having to hand-deliver laundry for families unable wash it themselves and soldiers handing out bottled water so residents could brush their teeth.

One Air Force spouse told leaders at a town hall streamed online over the weekend that her infant had vomited for days and that her dog, whose health rapidly deteriorated, had to be euthanized.

“We have put you in an unsafe condition, and that needs to be corrected,” Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, said during the town hall, vowing along with Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro to rebuild the water system and restore the families’ trust in military leadership.

“I deeply apologize to each and every one of you and to the people of Hawaii that this incident may have been destructive to your lives,” Del Toro said.

Those who elected to leave their homes on base have been put up in hotels, Navy spokesperson Lydia Robertson said, and commanders have provided shower facilities and medical treatment for affected families. About 1,500 people have called a related resource line, Robertson said, but the base’s Facebook page has been flooded with complaints that the phone lines don’t work. One person recorded themselves dialing multiple numbers on the page and getting nowhere.

Construction began in 1940, when the facility was carved into the basalt rock on Oahu to shield the fuel from aerial strike, a move that proved prophetic when the Japanese attacked the base the following year. The tanks, which are above an aquifer that feeds the base and civilian communities alike, are used to fuel military vehicles, ships and aircraft operating in the Pacific.

The system has been plagued with problems for years, including a leak of 27,000 gallons of fuel in 2014. The Hawaii Department of Health fined the Navy $325,000 in October over various violations stemming from a 2020 inspection, including failures to perform tests designed to prevent negligent spills and detect inadvertent releases.

The Navy hasn’t paid the fine because it contesting some of the findings and thinks the issues can be resolved through “good faith discussions,” Roberston said. A hearing has not been scheduled. The health department said it stands by its report. Days after it was issued, lawmakers in Hawaii told Del Toro they had concerns about the leaks and what they said was the Navy’s lack of transparency.

The Navy said it shut down operations at the Red Hill water shaft on Nov. 28, but military families said there were indications of a problem before then.

Frances Paulino, an Army spouse who lives near the Red Hill facility, said a leak before Thanksgiving filled the neighborhood with the smell of gas. Soon after, Paulino said, she and her husband began to experience gastrointestinal problems and severe headaches. Her two children, ages 3 and 4, developed skin rashes and diarrhea, she said, blaming the water contamination.

“I’m worried about the babies and children down here who may have to suffer long-term effects,” said Paulino.

Kate Needham, a co-founder and director of operations for Armed Forces Housing Advocates, an advocacy group, said the nonprofit organization received initial reports of tainted water on Nov. 29. Soon, there were hundreds of complaints, she said. Needham, a Navy veteran and military spouse, flew to Hawaii on Monday to visit more than two dozen affected families. To understand the problem’s severity, Needham said, she tasted the tainted water.

“It smells like fuel. It burns your eyes and throat. It made me dizzy and gave me a headache,” she said. “It’s abhorrent.”

The problem has had an adverse effect on military duties as service members training on Hawaii’s other islands have returned home to help sickened family members, Needham said, noting that some troops told her they were concerned about retaliation if their spouses spoke out.

The ongoing emergency has fractured trust between military officials and the families at Pearl Harbor, Needham said. She cited early assurances from the Navy, including from base commander Capt. Erik Spitzer, who said in a Nov. 29 message to personnel and their families that initial tests found no problems, and that although officials took the matter seriously, he was still drinking the water.

“We truly thought the testing results indicated the water was safe to drink. We were wrong. I apologize with my whole heart that we trusted those initial tests,” Spitzer wrote.

correction

A previous version of this article said incorrectly that construction of the Red Hill fuel storage facilities began after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The project was started in 1940. The article has been corrected.

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