The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Military families say they were ill months before jet-fuel leak brought scrutiny to Pearl Harbor’s tap water

Jamie Williams stands on one of the access roads to Red Hill near her home in Honolulu. (Marie Eriel Hobro for The Washington Post)

Yemery Moroyoqui’s hair began falling out in June.

In August, Jamie Williams started a period that didn’t stop for months, baffling her doctor.

For Alicia Contreras, it was October when she discovered the rash on one of her newborn twins.

As U.S. military officials have scrambled to address a public health crisis stemming from the discovery of jet fuel in the tap water supply at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, multiple residents there have come forward with claims of unexplained illness predating the Navy’s notification late last month that thousands of households had been exposed to dangerous amounts of petroleum hydrocarbons.

In interviews with The Washington Post, members of 10 military families said they are increasingly suspicious — and afraid — their ailments were caused by more extensive contamination than the Navy has disclosed. Many shared physicians’ notes, emails and visual records documenting symptoms that, in some cases, date back to late spring.

“I firmly believe this is a way bigger problem” than the military has acknowledged, said Kate Needham, co-founder of Armed Forces Housing Advocates. Her nonprofit support group has made contact with about 700 of the more than 8,000 affected families, she said, with dozens detailing accounts of “serious illness” spanning “at least six months to a year.”

“Definitely, definitely much longer-term than they’re either going to admit or they understand at this point,” Needham said of Navy officials whose response to the ongoing emergency became the subject of a Defense Department Inspector General investigation this week.

More than 90,000 people living on and near the base use the Navy’s water system.

The military’s account of what’s happened has evolved as more information surfaces about the Navy’s management of a troubled World War II-era fuel-storage facility built underground barely 100 feet above an aquifer. Senior officials told state legislators in Hawaii earlier this month that they traced the contamination to a Nov. 20 leak of 14,000 gallons of jet fuel from the Red Hill storage area. Families began complaining of noxious odors in their tap water eight days later.

This week, another top Navy official said he had a “working theory” that a fuel release in early May, much bigger than the Navy first disclosed, may have eventually migrated into the people’s drinking water, causing the November contamination.

Nearly 3,500 military families stationed at the base have been forced from their homes and into hotels. Many have blasted the Navy for what they said was a lack of urgency to disclose warning signs, pointing to delays between elevated test samples and required reporting to the Hawaii State Department of Health. They also criticized the Navy for taking days to announce it halted operations at Red Hill.

The health department says that from June to September, fuel had been detected in the nearby Red Hill water shaft on multiple occasions, with two tests in August exceeding what the state health agency calls its “environmental action levels.” The levels are designed to bring closer scrutiny and trigger an emergency response if necessary, but the Navy’s results were not relayed to the state for months, said Fenix Grange, a state environmental health official, during a virtual hearing Monday to discuss the Hawaii governor’s emergency order to empty the fuel the tanks and make repairs.

“This is an early warning sign of something going on. And yet the [health] department was not aware of it, which is a concern,” Grange said.

An oil and gas expert consulting for the state, David Norfleet, later predicted, “It’s not just possible” there will be future fuel leaks, “it is imminent.”

Chris Waldron, an environmental engineer for the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center, disputed there were disclosure delays, saying in an interview Tuesday that the military uses the same testing center in California that the state uses and that Navy officials notified the health department about the August samples in late September. The results can take two weeks or more to get back, he said.

Capt. Michael McGinnis, the surgeon for U.S. Pacific Fleet, said in an interview that he has heard families express fear about their maladies predating the November spill. “I’m certainly concerned about potential correlation to the water,” he said of the 10 families interviewed by The Post. But McGinnis stopped short of endorsing their claims, saying that with such a small sample, it was “challenging” to make conclusions before more is known about past contaminations and noting that the military’s health-record systems did not record a rise in associated symptoms before November.

Families told The Post that in some cases they sought treatment from civilian health care providers — or not at all, if they believed routine stress was making them or their loved ones sick. The military has created a registry to record people’s health concerns, McGinnis said, but it is currently set up to document exposure only from Nov. 28 and forward. He said it could be revised if officials determine exposure may have started sooner.

“Right now,” McGinnis said, “we’re really focused on what we understand to be the beginning of this event, which is the 28th.”

A history of leaks

The Red Hill storage facility comprises 20 underground steel fuel tanks encased in concrete, each about 20 stories tall, with a total capacity of about 250 million gallons. The Navy began construction on the facility in 1940, and in recent years it has become the subject of intensifying scrutiny from state officials and environmentalists who closely monitor nearby groundwater and the lines feeding people’s homes.

Critics of the military’s response have homed in a May 6 pipeline rupture at Red Hill. The Navy said initially it released 1,600 gallons of fuel into an access tunnel. But during Monday’s hearing, an attorney representing a local water agency described previously undisclosed Navy documents revealing that one of the fuel tanks emptied as much as 473 barrels — roughly 19,000 gallons — in less than a minute.

“I and others have a working theory, that’s still under investigation, that fuel, at least some of that, was released” into tunnels that led to the fire suppression line, which eventually triggered the November incident, said Capt. James Meyer, commanding officer of Naval Facilities Hawaii. The Navy has claimed that water was not contaminated before late-November, but state health agency documents show an increase in petroleum detections in groundwater underneath the tanks and “significant increases” in the Red Hill water shaft in July in August.

Waldron, the Navy engineer, said he has not seen evidence linking that event, or any other leak, to symptoms described prior to November.

The military’s response has been vexing, critics say. Often, they contend, senior Defense Department officials strike a conciliatory tone in public, as they’ve done in recent weeks, while mounting a robust effort behind the scenes to evade accountability.

In October, for instance, Hawaii fined the Navy $325,000 for environmental violations stemming from inspection violations a year prior, including discovery that the military failed to perform its required safety tests on the fuel tanks, according to the state health department. The Navy contested some of the findings and has not paid the fine, pending an alternative resolution, said Lydia Robertson, a Navy spokesperson.

In response to the public health threat facing Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) ordered the military to empty Red Hill’s tanks and make immediate repairs. Military officials instead declared an operational pause. The Navy on Monday said it has set up a system to flush tap water lines and force out contaminants.

The Hawaii delegation to Congress, long concerned about the problems at Red Hill, wrote to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro on Nov. 1, before the most recent leak, questioning “the seriousness with which the Navy takes its responsibility to communicate clearly with the public about matters concerning health and safety.”

“They were not transparent enough before,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who chairs the Senate Armed Services subcommittee overseeing maritime forces, said in an interview. Going forward, she said, it would be up to state health officials — not the military — to determine when the water was clean enough for those families living in hotels for the past month to return home.

The military must find a more durable solution “to make sure that the Red Hill tanks and the pipes that are connected to these tanks — or any of the Red Hill systems — do not contaminate the water in any way, shape or form,” she said.

“This is why I’ve been asking: What is the long-term role, if any, of Red Hill going forward?” Hirono said. “I’ve been asking the military in the years they’ve come before my committee, long before this happened … all of this comes to a head when people actually start to smell and taste this stuff in their water.

Ten days after the leak, Del Toro told Hawaii’s representatives in Congress that he is “fully committed to ensuring the safe operation of Red Hill and related systems,” insisting in a handwritten response that the Navy does prioritize timely and accurate reporting, to them and to regulators.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said the Pentagon would solve the problem “safely, expeditiously and transparently.”

Unexplained illness

The Army, Navy and Coast Guard families who spoke with The Post shared their physicians’ contemporaneous notes and, in some cases, private photographs documenting the sudden onset of symptoms — mostly consistent with petroleum exposure, according to federal and state health officials — and corresponding requests for treatment. The materials date to July.

Stephanie Monroe, an Army spouse, said her 10-year-old daughter’s hands started cracking and peeling in late spring. Their doctor suspected eczema, but none of the creams she was prescribed seemed to help. Monroe tried forbidding her daughter from climbing trees, for fear it was a reaction to sap. The condition cleared up when the girl went to sleep-away camp for a week in July, but it returned with a vengeance as soon as she came home, Monroe said.

“There were days when it was so painful for her she couldn’t even write,” she said.

Nastasia Freeman, a Navy spouse, watched her two sons struggle with stomach pain that she initially blamed on stress arising from their recent move to Hawaii from Florida. But the condition worsened, and by October her oldest, age 11, was to sent to the hospital. The doctor, she said, was “stumped,” but prescribed medication to help flush the boy’s system while advising, “keep him hydrated; he needs more water than normal.”

Moroyoqui, the Army spouse who said her hair started falling out in June, also struggled with headaches, forgetfulness and skin breakouts. She spent thousands of dollars on hair treatments, facials and other products, she said, upsetting her so greatly she was given a prescription for anti-depression medication, she said, adding that the symptoms began to subside soon after her family left base housing for a hotel.

“I felt like I was going crazy. I didn’t feel like me,” she said. “It was horrible.”

Williams, a Coast Guard spouse, said she started her period in the middle of a birth-control cycle in August. It didn’t stop for over three months, according to notes her doctor took during a Nov. 5 visit, which she shared with The Post. She approached other women in her neighborhood, finding three who reported similar problems also starting around the same time, she said. Other, more acute symptoms, like a fractured memory and fatigue that began in the summer, “cleared up when I stopped drinking the water,” she said.

Contreras said she also experienced extreme fatigue and mental fog over the summer while pregnant with her twins. She was hospitalized twice for pregnancy complications, and her babies were born prematurely in August. After a healthy first few weeks in the hospital, she brought them home — but they began to vomit routinely, and one developed a rash while the other’s skin turned gray, she said.

The military has acknowledged a connection between petroleum exposure and some, but not all, of the symptoms described by those in Pearl Harbor who believe there is a link between their illnesses and fuel leaks before the Nov. 20 incident. A fact sheet distributed to families Dec. 5 cites conditions like skin irritation, nausea and confusion. Hair loss and menstrual abnormalities were not on that list. A study of women in the Air Force, assessing data from 2001 and 2002, determined that handling jet fuel “did not have significantly higher odds” of such disorders, according to a federal profile on jet fuels, though it did not account for ingestion or exposure over time.

Most symptoms of petroleum exposure are acute, and there is “little to no information known about the long-term health impacts of exposure,” the Hawaii health department says.

Chelsey Simoni, a registered nurse and former aviation medic whose nonprofit, HunterSeven, researches toxic exposure in the military, said it would be rare that the chronic issues described by those in Pearl Harbor would result from short-term exposure “unless it’s a heavy amount.” She also warned that for young children especially, ingesting petroleum can damage the central nervous system over time, affecting parts of the brain that control functions such as hearing.

“In terms of growth and development, this is a known correlation,” Simoni said.

Many of the chemicals associated with petroleum can produce long-term health problems, even for those without immediate symptoms, said Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University and an environmental health expert.

The situation presents the military with a serious dilemma, she said. Red Hill is the linchpin fuel facility for military operations in the Pacific, where the Pentagon has turned its focus to counter China. But defense officials also have a responsibility to protect the drinking water supply — an imperative made more complicated by the inherent risks that underground tanks pose, Goldman said.

“They eventually fail,” she said. “All of them.”


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.