The Hawaii Department of Health is advising users of the Navy’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system to avoid drinking or using tap water after the state received numerous complaints from consumers. The system includes the Aliamanu Military Reservation, Red Hill and Nimitz Elementary Schools and military housing.

“The DOH recommends all Navy water system users avoid using the water for drinking, cooking, or oral hygiene,” the agency said in a Monday evening press release. “Navy water system users who detect a fuel odor from their water should avoid using the water for drinking, cooking, bathing, dishwashing, laundry or oral hygiene (brushing teeth, etc.).”

Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam Housing near aerial near Halsey Terrace. Military Housing.
Residents of the communities near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam have been reporting issues with their water. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Throughout the past week, numerous residents in military housing communities around Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam have noticed that their water smells like fuel and report that their families and pets are suffering from a litany of physical ailments. 

The U.S. Navy said in a press release Monday that it is investigating the chemical smell in their drinking water. But as of Monday afternoon, Navy officials had not announced what may be causing it and maintained that the water is safe. 

Capt. Erik Spitzer, commander of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, said in a message to residents on Monday afternoon that the Navy will “continue to sample, test and provide expedited results as soon as they are available,” in coordination with the state health department. 

“I can tell you at this point that there are no immediate indications that the water is not safe,” he wrote. “My staff and I are drinking the water on base this morning, and many of my team live in housing and drink and use the water as well.” 

Navy Capt. Erik Spitzer sent a message to military families on Monday afternoon suggesting the water is fine. Residents say he's wrong.
Navy Capt. Erik Spitzer sent a message to military families on Monday afternoon suggesting the water is fine. U.S. Navy photo

But many military families are skeptical.

Bonnie Russell, a Catlin Park military spouse who said her water has reeked of gasoline since Sunday morning, said if Spitzer isn’t already smelling the fuel, he should visit her neighborhood. 

“He’s more than welcome to come have a glass of water if he wants it,” she said. 

On social media on Monday, residents expressed alarm, reporting that their families have started to suffer from health issues they believe to be related to their foul-smelling water, including rashes, mouth sores, stomach aches, headaches and nausea. 

Families have also expressed frustration about what they perceive as a lack of communication from officials and reported that bottled water is selling out in some area stores.

Armed Forces Housing Advocates, a group that services military families, reported receiving 456 complaints from area households reporting water that smelled like fuel. The organization bought $1,200 worth of water to hand out and ran out almost immediately, according to operations director Kate Needham.

The DOH press release said it is working with the Navy to investigate the extent and source of the issue, including performing “sampling and analyses for potential petroleum components.” Initial DOH results received on Monday afternoon were inconclusive and did not detect a contaminant, DOH said.

Samples have also been sent to a California-based drinking water testing laboratory, which is expected to provide “more quantifiable, contaminant-specific results” by the end of this week.

Valerie Kaahanui, who lives in the Dorris Miller community, said she and her three kids began noticing problems about a week ago.

“My kids have been sick, respiratory issues, headaches. I’ve had a headache for the past week,” she said. “My kids have had nosebleeds, rashes, we’ve been itchy after we get out of the shower. It feels like our skin is burning.”

On Saturday, a smell became noticeable in the shower, and on Sunday, it had grown stronger and a film was noticeable on top of the water, Kaahanui said.

“It smells like gasoline,” she said. “Today, as soon as you turn the faucet on, cold or hot, eyes are watering. It’s bad.”

Other families were noticing the same thing and started posting on Facebook, Kaahanui said, but there was little communication from the military or Ohana Military Communities, which runs her housing complex.

Radford Terrace Military Housing located near Salt Lake.
Residents in areas including Radford Terrace near Salt Lake reported problems with their water. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“Now housing is telling us: Do not drink the water,” Kaahanui said. But that message was only delivered to her over the phone and hasn’t been blasted by email, she said.

Kaahanui bought several cases of water yesterday, and others are doing the same, she said.

“We went again today to Target, and there’s a line around the corner,” she said. “The minimart is out of water. The commissary was out of water.”

Civil Beat spoke to six other area residents who reported a fuel smell in their water but didn’t want to be identified for fear of retaliation from the military. 

One, a military spouse named Bethany, said she’d experienced stomach aches, cramps and nausea for days.

“It literally smells like you’re at a gas station,” she said.

Another said she had been having migraines, her daughter has been suffering from debilitating stomach cramps and their dogs have had diarrhea.

One military spouse, whose family just recently moved to Honolulu, said she and her children have had sore throats, congestion, headaches and stomach aches in the past week. 

She said the family has felt better since they stopped using the water on Sunday, but now they can’t properly shower or wash their hands and are subsisting on bottled water. 

Halsey Terrace. salt Lake military housing. 16 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civill Beat
Residents are skipping showers or asking to use water at the homes of friends outside of the area. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

Michelle Foor, another military spouse and mother of young children, said she was able to ignite the water from her faucet on Sunday. 

“Meanwhile, we’re getting no information,” she said. “No instruction to stop drinking or using the water.” 

Holy Family Catholic Academy and Preschool shut down on Monday citing “reports of chemical smell in the water,” its automated phone recording said.

On Monday, Nimitz Elementary School Principal Corey Allen sent a notice to parents that school leadership had “become aware of reports of water contamination in surrounding areas.”

In response, the school has blocked off all sinks and water fountains, modified food service to avoid using tap water and is purchasing bottled water, Allen’s email said.

Navy engineers visited several homes that reported the odor and also immediately checked the Navy’s drinking water wells, according to the Navy press release.

“There was no smell or sign of fuel or chemicals in the water at the Navy’s water wells and water tanks,” the release said. “Specialists took samples of water at several locations for testing.”

The Navy said it is working with the Hawaii Department of Health on lab testing the Navy’s water samples. The press release said the Navy will continue to monitor and investigate and will update residents.

In the press release, the Navy did not say how many homes are affected. 

The Navy also did not say whether there could be a connection to the Navy’s controversial Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, a farm of 20 massive underground fuel tanks and a pipe system that delivers fuel to Pearl Harbor and elsewhere. The fueling system sits above a major Oahu drinking water aquifer.

In a statement on Monday afternoon, Wayne Tanaka, executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, noted that 14,000 gallons of fuel and water leaked from the Navy’s fire suppression system last week. 

“This should not be happening. Families, schools and businesses should not have to worry about fuel and other contaminants in their drinking water,” he said.

Sierra Club Executive Director Wayne Tanaka and Hawaii Rep. Sonny Ganaden held a press conference on Oct. 19, 2021 to discuss the Navy's Red Hill fuel facility.
The Sierra Club, whose director Wayne Tanaka is pictured at left, has long expressed concern about the Navy’s fuel operation. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat 2021

“People are reporting pets throwing up, adults, children and babies getting rashes after bathing, and despite this the Navy only says that they haven’t found any evidence – yet – that the tap water may be unsafe to drink.” 

Honolulu Board of Water Supply said in a statement that it conducts regular testing on its water sources and that the BWS water source closest to the Navy’s Red Hill fuel storage facility – the Halawa Shaft pumping station – last passed inspection in October. 

The agency said it would be increasing testing frequency of water sources in the vicinity of the Red Hill tanks in response to the concerns from military housing communities. 

Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson, who represents the area affected, called the reports “very alarming,” particularly because this isn’t the first time Navy fuel operations have caused concern.

The reports of possible contamination follow the news of the 14,000-gallon leak last week, a 1,600-gallon fuel leak on May 6 that likely reached the environment and a fuel release into Pearl Harbor that began in 2020 – the response to which has sparked calls for investigation by state and federal elected officials. 

“It’s very disturbing because it’s quite frequent,” Johanson said. 

Pearl Harbor is a major pillar of the economy but there has to be a way, given the Navy’s engineering abilities and resources at the federal level, to find an ideal compromise that preserves Pearl Harbor’s viability but doesn’t endanger the water source.” 

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