Carrie Baker, a Honolulu military wife and mother of two, thought her family was in the clear.
When the news broke that fuel-contaminated water had been pumped into other homes surrounding Pearl Harbor, residents of Manana Housing – a community in Pearl City – were assured they were not impacted.
They were told the community gets its water from the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, whose tests have shown its water is not contaminated.
“I’m like OK, we’re good. I’m not going to worry about it,” Baker, a nurse practitioner, said. “We continued to use our water.”
But on Dec. 7, Baker said the water in her home began to smell like fuel and she and her family members started feeling sick. As of Tuesday afternoon, 30% of Manana households have reported water contamination concerns, the Navy said, but the community has received conflicting messages about where their water comes from and whether it’s safe.
The state health department has advised all 93,000 Navy water customers not to consume the water amid the Navy’s water contamination crisis. But the Manana Housing community’s dilemma raises questions about what to do when water is coming from a civilian source that is believed to be safe but is being delivered through the Navy’s distribution system.
Officials have not offered a satisfying answer, according to a half dozen residents interviewed by Civil Beat.
As of Thursday, the Navy had not identified contamination in the water at Manana Housing. The Navy published test results from across its distribution system, including in Manana, and said no results showed detectable contamination above state safety standards.
The results list several addresses in Manana, some of which returned normal results, while others indicated trace levels of total organic carbon.
The state Department of Health pointed out in a press release this week that test results, in general, offer only a snapshot and do not change its recommendations for residents in affected areas to not drink the water or use it for cooking or oral hygiene.
Lt. Mark McDonough, a spokesman for Marine Corps Base Hawaii, said in a statement on Saturday that the base is working with local and state officials to “confirm the cleanliness and safety” of the water.
He suggested there’s no basis for residents’ concerns.
“Because of water issues present at other military housing communities on the island, and because of incorrect information provided to them, residents at Manana expressed concerns that they are also being affected by similar issues,” he said.
Of the 168 residences at Manana, the Navy has received calls from 52 households concerned about their water, according to Navy spokeswoman Lydia Robertson. And the Hawaii Department of Health, which has received over 400 complaints from the whole Pear Harbor region, marked Manana as a complaint hotspot on a heat map published on Tuesday.
Military officials have pointed to the fact that the Manana community has received water from the Honolulu Board of Water Supply since Nov. 16 because the Navy needed to repair a booster pump, and that BWS water has been shown to be safe.
BWS Chief Engineer Ernie Lau said that he’s confident the water his utility is providing is clean and safe to drink and use. What happens when that water hits the Navy’s distribution system is a question for the military, he said.
“When our water passes that meter, we don’t know what conditions that water encounters in their pipes and in their system on their side,” Lau said.
Civilian water customers close to Manana housing, who receive their water via BWS pipes, have not reported problems, Lau said. Still, Lau said he has ordered testing of the source of Manana’s water. Samples were taken this week, he said.
The Hawaii Department of Health also collected samples in the Manana community on Sunday, according to spokeswoman Katie Arita-Chang. DOH has not announced any test results.
The Navy says a contractor is collecting water every day from shafts, wells and distribution lines across its water distribution system, and the samples are being tested by a mainland laboratory with the ability to get results at the level of parts per billion.
In addition, the Navy says it is sampling at an average of 60 other points throughout its distribution system each day, and testing them at a Navy lab whose results are not as sensitive but give an initial read on contamination.
The military-owned pipes that carry water to the Manana Housing community are PVC, according to the Navy.
Plastic can absorb fuel contamination, according to Andrew Whelton, a Purdue University professor and expert on environmental chemistry and engineering who is in Hawaii this week consulting with the Navy.
“If the contaminated water sat in contact with these types of plastics for an extended period of time, it would be like a sponge sucking up the chemical,” he said.
“Then you flush that pipe, you put in clean water that has no contamination, you leave it there, and sometime later, it’s now unsafe because the chemicals leached back out of the plastic.”
Robertson, the Navy spokeswoman, declined to comment about the possibility that its pipes could be contaminating water pumped in from the Board of Water Supply.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army added Manana to its list of affected communities on Dec. 9 and has helped place families in hotels. Unlike the Navy, the Army is allowing residents to self-certify problems and isn’t waiting for test results to definitively confirm contamination, KHON2 reported this week.
One active-duty military member who lives in Manana said he doesn’t feel like the military is taking his neighborhood’s concerns seriously.
“We feel like we’re being gaslighted,” he said.
The military installed a digital road sign last weekend at the entrance to the gated Manana community saying Manana Housing is “NOT connected” to the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water supply.
In response, residents posted their own, homemade signs.
“IF NOT YOU THEN WHO?” one sign said in all caps. “ALL WE WANT IS OUR WATER TESTED AND OUR KIDS TO BE SAFE!”
Adding to the confusion was incorrect information from the Board of Water Supply, whose representatives mistakenly told residents they were not receiving BWS water. The water utility has since corrected that and apologized.
The active-duty resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting his employer, said his family of four has suffered from a litany of health issues in the last month. They include rashes, sores, upset stomach, constant headaches, physical and mental exhaustion, brain fog, blurred vision and aches in muscles and joints.
“Regardless of what the test results are, people are getting sick in my neighborhood,” he said. “And we need to find out why. We are not going to stop pushing the Navy and the Marine Corps just because they don’t think our water is contaminated. We’re not going to stop holding them accountable until they take us seriously.”
Civil Beat has been reporting on the leaking tanks, water contamination concerns and political debate over Red Hill since 2014. Read our coverage here. Click on “full archive” for the complete list of stories.
Another military wife in Manana, who did not want to be named for fear of negatively impacting her husband’s career, said her family has been experiencing adverse health impacts for months, including dizziness and fainting spells. She said symptoms have subsided since they stopped consuming and using the tap water.
On Monday, the Marine Corps opened a water distribution site in Manana as a “courtesy to community members who are not yet comfortable utilizing and consuming water provided to the community by the Honolulu Board of Water Supply,” McDonough wrote in a Dec. 13 memo.
“Current test results continue to show that the water supply at Manana Housing is safe for use,” he wrote.
“Further testing is being conducted and official test results will be provided directly to the residents of the Manana Housing Community when they become publicly available.”
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