Dee Ann Koanui’s memories of the three years she spent as a child living on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina are a glorious stream of outdoor adventures.

She and her four siblings spent their days climbing trees and watching alligators at a nearby river, only returning to their four-bedroom home at the end of a cul-de-sac when night fell and the streetlights flickered on.

But Koanui’s rosy recollections were dampened when years later, in her 30s, she learned that Camp Lejeune had been the site of contaminated drinking water for decades, in part due to carcinogenic chemicals used for dry-cleaning services.

So far Koanui doesn’t know anyone personally who got sick from Lejeune, though she wonders if her exposure to toxic chemicals weakened her and her siblings’ immune systems. But the 55-year-old Kapolei resident is angry this week because she feels like history is repeating itself.

On Monday, the state told families at Pearl Harbor to stop drinking or using tap water. Residents reported smelling fuel, and some who did drink the water reported feeling sick. A University of Hawaii lab confirmed Wednesday that one specimen of water from Red Hill Elementary School contained petroleum.

Navy personnel assist with filling water containers at the NEX parking lot after military housing residents noticed foul smelling odor from their tap water.
Navy personnel assist with filling water containers at the NEX parking lot this week after military housing residents noticed foul smelling odor from their tap water. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The Navy confirmed Thursday that water in its Red Hill well had been contaminated with petroleum products based on tests of samples sent to a mainland lab earlier this week. Rear Adm. Blake Converse, deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, didn’t provide more details about where the petroleum came from or how much was involved.

“Now that the source has been identified and isolated, we are developing a plan to restore the potable water system to EPA standards, identify how this contaminant got in the well, and fix the well,” Converse said during a FaceBook Live address.

Much is still unknown. But what is clear is that this is far from the first time that the military has been responsible for water pollution in the U.S.

The scope and causes of the pollution have varied, but the problem has affected communities from Guam to North Carolina, with mixed responses from federal officials.

A 2017 Government Accountability Office study criticized the Department of Defense for its poor data reporting on drinking water violations, and found the military shut down wells at 11 installations due to high levels of chemicals found in firefighting foam.

Range of Disasters

Water pollution from military bases doesn’t always affect water that people are actively drinking. In New Mexico, the Air Force recognized in 1999 that jet fuel had contaminated groundwater below Kirtland Air Force Base and surrounding neighborhoods.

The 24-million gallon leak at a jet fuel loading facility was estimated to be twice the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

No drinking water has been contaminated by the leak, according to the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. But the agency says the site is a priority because the contamination is close to drinking water supply wells.

The New Mexico Environmental Law Center on behalf of their clients including the SouthWest Organizing Project sued for a faster cleanup out of concern that the drinking water could be contaminated.

At Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, the Environmental Protection Agency determined groundwater is contaminated between the island’s aquifer and above the salt water zone. That’s a concern because the northern aquifer provides at least 70% of the island’s water supply.

Senator Donna Mercado Kim gestures while speaking to the media on the Red Hill water petroleum issue held outside the HSTA building near Red Hill.
Hawaii Sen. Donna Mercado Kim gestures while speaking to the media about the Red Hill water petroleum issue. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

But the EPA says the lack of drinking water wells near the toxic area prevents residents from drinking polluted water. The Pacific Daily News reported that the EPA and Air Force are monitoring rather than cleaning up the plume because of the risk of salt water getting into the aquifer.

Two years ago, the Guam Environmental Protection Agency fined Anderson Air Force Base for a separate problem: using chemicals meant for cleaning swimming pools to sanitize drinking water on base.

Even when water that residents actively drink is contaminated, sometimes there’s not a clear link between that and health problems. In Wisconsin, families discovered in 1990 that chemicals from the Badger Army Ammunition Plant had seeped into their wells.

Studies showed the community didn’t have disproportionately high cancer rates, Wisconsin Watch reported, but residents remained worried in part because chemicals like chloroform that are probably carcinogenic had been detected at high levels in the water.

The Air Force spent years cleaning up groundwater contamination at Kelly Air Force Base in Texas after leaks, spills and approved dumping led to a plume of contaminants 30 feet deep that was first detected in 1988.

The Air Force said it spent $5 million to fund studies over 10 years, but the analyses did not find links between the contamination and individual health problems.

Money For Sick Families

Camp Lejeune, a sprawling base that is home to tens of thousands of Marines and their families in coastal North Carolina, suffered decades of water contamination that came from carcinogenic dry-cleaning solvents and leaking fuel tanks.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has admitted there was a link between exposure to contaminants in the drinking water and several medical conditions, including leukemia and other types of cancers and female infertility.

The VA agreed to provide health care benefits for veterans who served at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 cumulative days from August 1953 through December 1987. In 2017, the Obama administration agreed to provide disability benefits totaling more than $2 billion to eligible veterans who had been exposed.

Kyle Kajihiro, an environmental activist and board member of the community group Hawaii Peace and Justice, hopes that the water crisis in Hawaii doesn’t escalate to that point and that the Navy takes it as a wake-up call.

“I think what we are seeing is a disaster unfolding in real time,” he said. “To me, this is a preview of a much larger disaster that could happen if the Red Hill tanks were to have a catastrophic leak.”

“It’s kind of a warning shot in a sense that we really have an urgent responsibility to remove the fuel from where they are above our aquifers,” he added.

Kajihiro, who also is a lecturer at the University of Hawaii, has studied environmental disasters at U.S. military bases and says there’s a familiar pattern of denial and reassurance. It can take years to get the military to accept responsibility.

“Some of the details might change but a similar story unfolds time and time again at these sites where the environment and communities are sacrificed by the military in pursuit of its mission,” he said.

Kajihiro said he joined other environmental activists two decades ago to push for a bill in Congress that would have allowed people to sue the military for environmental harms. But the measure died in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, he said.

Kajihiro has been disappointed by what he sees as a lack of proactiveness from Hawaii’s leaders on this issue but said he’s happy about a bill that was introduced by the Honolulu City Council Thursday that would require operators of underground storage tanks to get permitted by the city.

“Some of us have been saying this for a long time and it just feels like we’re shouting in the wilderness,” he said. “It sadly has to come to something like this before there will be some action.”

Civil Beat reporter Christina Jedra contributed reporting to this story. 

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