During a time when the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has already disrupted normal school operations, the Navy Red Hill water crisis has created additional challenges for certain schools.

Crates of bottled water, portable water stations, hand wipes and late drop-offs by families who have relocated from their contaminated residences have been part of the new routine at the Hawaii Department of Education schools on the Navy water supply line.

According to the department, seven DOE schools are served by that source, all of them elementary schools: Red Hill, Nimitz, Pearl Harbor, Pearl Harbor Kai, Hickam, Mokulele and Iroquois Point. Combined, these schools serve about 3,000 students.

Oahu Water Protectors demonstrate in opposition to the Red Hill Bulk fuel storage facility at the Capitol.
At least seven DOE schools are served by the Navy water supply line and make their utility payments to Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command. Here, a demonstration in front of the state Capitol. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The Navy public affairs office said it also supplies water to private centers such as Holy Family Catholic Academy, Kamaaina Kids, Navy Hale Keiki School, Montessori Center of Pearl Harbor, ASSETS and Iroquois Point Preschool. It also included Aliamanu Elementary and Middle schools as serviced DOE schools in a list provided to Civil Beat.

The state Department of Health recommends that Navy system water users avoid using the water to drink or cook or for oral hygiene. At schools, that has meant replacing regular school meals with ready-to-heat pizzas, shutting off the taps at some places and receiving a lot of bottled water donations.

“At our school, we haven’t smelled anything but because we’re on the base, as soon as it came out on the news, our principal decided to be safe,” said Hickam Elementary kindergarten teacher Michele Sasaki.

The school has not been using the running tap water — even for basic hand-washing — except to flush toilets.

Many of her students who are in military families and live in impacted areas have been temporarily relocated to Waikiki hotels, due to contaminated water in their homes. That means many parents have had to make the long commute from Waikiki to the Pearl Harbor base — up to a half-hour or more with traffic — to take their kids to school.

“You’ll hear them talk about how they have to leave really early or sometimes families will just go to hotels to shower and stay at their house,” Sasaki said. “As a school, we’ve given grace. If (students) are tardy, we understand since they’re coming from Waikiki.”

The Army had also been providing back-and-forth shuttle service between select Waikiki stops and impacted areas, but that stopped as of Friday morning.

With schools recessing on Monday for two weeks for the winter break, some of the pressure is lifted as schools and staff regroup and try to catch a breath. But there is no telling how long the directive to not use the water will last or when the state Department of Health will deem it safe again for the water at schools to be used for drinking and food preparation.

DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said the facilities branch has been providing potable water to its seven affected schools since Dec. 1 for drinking, hand-washing, cooking and food prep.

“Schools are responsible for monitoring their water consumption and have been asked to conserve water,” she said via email. “Schools notify the Department when they need to reorder more.”

On Dec. 1, the DOH said a preliminary result of a water sample taken at Red Hill Elementary and analyzed at a University of Hawaii lab found it contained a petroleum product. Yet on Dec. 3, the DOH said water samples taken Nov. 29 at Nimitz Elementary and Pearl Harbor Elementary tested negative for petroleum.

Despite those negative results, DOH spokeswoman Kaitlin Arita-Chang said on Friday, “I’d like to emphasize that our do-not-drink advisory still applies to all Navy water system users, including schools.”

The Navy water supply line serves about 93,000 total customers, and the water contamination has displaced up to 3,200 families. The complaints began over Thanksgiving weekend as families reported water smelling like fuel and experienced symptoms like rashes, headaches, dizziness and vomiting.

That water distribution system is a vast network encompassing Central Oahu and the edges of the Leeward Coast. Reports of health problems have been spread throughout.

The aging Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, the suspected source of contamination, sits just 100 feet above the aquifer that supplies about 77% of Oahu’s drinking water.

The DOH’s Arita-Chang said her department is working with the Navy and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to come up with common guidelines for clearing schools to use the water. The DOH is collecting water samples every day and posting results as they come back.

Even when tests come back negative, the DOH notes that “sampling only captures contaminant levels at a point in time” and it still recommends that users not consume the water.

State Rep. Matt LoPresti, whose district includes Ewa Beach where Iroquois Point Elementary is located, has been regularly posting updates on the Kapilina Beach Homes complex, where many families have reported being sickened by the water, according to KHON2.

“So yes, test results have been negative, and yes, people have had legitimate health problems after contact with water in their homes. Both can obviously be true,” LoPresti wrote.

According to Iroquois Point Elementary teacher SueAnn Thomas, as of Thursday “there is no odor, sheen or evidence the water is contaminated.” She said the school had not shut off its tap water but has been relying on bottled water and that hot meals were being prepared at nearby Campbell High.

“I believe it’s important to take these precautions ahead of time,” said Thomas. “If there’s potential harm that could happen to these children at school, they’re not in a safe environment. It’s important to provide bottled water for them to drink.

“The general chaos of being in a school with hundreds of children — and trying to keep them healthy and safe through the pandemic and the water contamination situation — it’s good to take a break and step away and really take some time for ourselves and our families,” she added.

In addition, the Leeward chapter of the Hawaii State Teachers Association voted last week to call for decommissioning the Red Hill fuel tank system and plans to ask the HSTA Board of Directors to follow suit.

“The impact of this fuel leak touches so many of us, at work, at home, at school,” said Julie Reyes Oda, the Leeward chapter president and a teacher at Nanakuli High and Intermediate. “Everyone deserves to have clean water, period. We need to stand together to support clean water for all.”

Hawaii Gov. David Ige has ordered the Navy to defuel the World War II-era bulk fuel storage tanks and install a drinking water treatment system, but the Navy said it will fight that order. A hearing is set to take place on Monday morning.

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