Some military families living around Pearl Harbor have reported new health problems and expressed concern that their water may still be contaminated in recent weeks, according to testimony Friday before the state’s Fuel Tank Advisory Committee.
But the Navy is insisting that the water is safe to drink.
Jamie Williams, a Coast Guard spouse, told the committee that she noticed an oily sheen on her water three weeks ago and has heard “complaint after complaint from families suddenly experiencing visible contamination and odor in their water.” In an interview, Williams said she and her husband have experienced the return of skin irritation that started when the contamination crisis became public in November.
“When will the Navy acknowledge that there seems to be yet another problem with our water?” she asked during the meeting.
Hundreds of families were displaced from their homes after the Navy acknowledged in November that leaked fuel had contaminated its drinking water supply. In March, after a systemwide flushing and testing effort, the Navy and state health department deemed all areas safe, and families returned home.
Since the water was declared safe, the Navy hasn’t detected any evidence of contamination in its testing, said Capt. Gordie Meyer, who leads the Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command.
Two fuel releases at Red Hill last year are believed to have caused the contamination crisis and another spill of an estimated 30 gallons occurred on April 1. According to Meyer, there have not been any more recent leaks.
But a lack of trust remains, and many families are still relying on bottled water for drinking, showering and other household uses.
Familieswere told in November that their water was safe when it wasn’t. Navy Capt. Erik Spitzer told residents in a Nov. 29 email that he was drinking the base water and that, essentially, there was no reason to worry. At the time, the Red Hill well was already closed because of contamination concerns.
“Public trust is very important, and obviously there are many here that feel that has eroded, and I’m sorry to hear that,” Meyer said during Friday’s meeting.
The Fuel Tank Advisory Committee was formed by the Legislature after a 2014 leak at Red Hill to track developments and make recommendations related to the underground fuel storage tanks.
At its meeting on Friday, the Hawaii Department of Health released new maps showing the scope of the contamination over time, as captured by monitoring wells. The most recent data shows the contamination levels have decreased in the monitored areas since November. DOH said it believes that means the plume is “stable and possibly contracting” as the Navy pumps and filters 5 million gallons of water per day from the Red Hill well.
However, several meeting attendees, including Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau, questioned that conclusion.
The data could be showing the contamination migrating farther west, past the point where there are monitoring wells, Lau said. It could be moving toward BWS’ Halawa shaft, which is now closed but used to provide 20% of the water for the Oahu region covering Moanalua to Hawaii.
Fenix Grange, a supervisor in the DOH Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response office,acknowledged that is a possibility and called it “an area of great concern to us.”
“This is a work in progress,” Grange said.
Navy spokeswoman Lydia Robertson said Friday that the military has received 243 calls requesting a water test or evaluation since March 18, when all zones were declared safe. Since then, she said 10 people have sought water-related medical services, including those seeking documentation of their symptoms.
“There has not been any reported increase in medical encounters related to water concerns for ongoing, worsening, or new symptoms and signs,” Roberston said.
Under a flushing and sampling plan approved by regulators, the Navy water system is now in a two-year period of long-term monitoring, Robertson said.
It includes testing about 6,000 more samples for more than 60 different contaminants from roughly 55% of residences and other facilities on Navy water lines.
Under the plan, the Navy is sampling 5% of homes and other buildings in each zone for the first three months, 15% of those buildings after three months, then 40% of buildings over the following 21 months. All schools, child development centers and medical centers will be sampled regularly throughout, according to the plan.
Since long-term monitoring began in March, there have been seven detections of elevated lead levels and one detection of an elevated mercury level out of 1,666 samples.
“To date, no fuel has been detected in water samples,” Robertson said.
DOH officials didn’t say much in response to residents’ concerns at Friday’s meeting. Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathleen Ho only noted that the contaminated Red Hill well is currently disconnected from the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system. The Pearl Harbor area’s water is now coming from the uncontaminated Waiawa shaft, officials have said.
But many residents aren’t satisfied with those answers.
Lacey Quintano, a Navy veteran, told the committee she feels “completely betrayed.” She said her family moved to Oahu on Nov. 6 and immediately smelled fuel when she gave her children a bath at the Navy Lodge on Ford Island.
“We have been sick since moving here,” she said through tears.
“When the testing says ‘non-detect,’ but we see sheens on our water daily and we suffer from health problems daily and they continue to be ignored, you’re doing the wrong test. Try harder. Do better.”
Emily Sturgis Toledano, a Halsey Terrace resident, recently noticed a sheen on her water and a sticky residue on her dishes. Her cat had glassy eyes and threw up last week after drinking tap water.Toledano said she and her husband have both experienced renewed skin irritation.
“Tests say it’s fine,” she said “People’s skin says it’s not.”
Meyer encouraged anyone with water concerns to contact the Navy.
But those who do report concerns often feel dismissed, according to Tiffany Overbaugh who said her family and others have gotten sick again in the last three weeks.
“When I have, in the past, had the same issues where I call, I either get gaslighted, I don’t get a return phone call back or they test it and say it’s fine, and I can still see the sheen on it,” she said.
“So where’s that sheen coming from? What is that a result of, if it’s not petroleum?”
Davie-Ann Momilani Thomas, a Pearl City peninsula resident, said she still hasn’t seen the results of water samples taken from her home in March.
“I feel like they’re hiding something,” she said.
The command investigation of the contamination is “under review” at the Pentagon, according to Navy officials. On Friday, Meyer gave no indication of when it might be released to the public, only saying that it should be a matter of weeks rather than months or years.
It’s also unclear when the Navy will remove the millions of gallons of fuel contained in the Red Hill tanks 100 feet above the aquifer. The Navy says it will comply with a state order to defuel, but Meyer said Friday that he “can’t commit to a timeline now.”
In the meantime, the Navy and regulators are trying to locate where exactly the fuel is in the aquifer below the Red Hill facility.
DOH said it is still waiting on comprehensive data from the Navy, but with the numbers it has so far, it was able to map where monitoring wells have detected the contamination over time. DOH shared maps illustrating the concentrations of total petroleum hydrocarbons, or TPH, as both diesel and oil.
The results show TPH in areas it wasn’t present before, according to Grange.
And levels of TPH spiked between August and October even though no new leaks were reported at that time, Grange said.
One theory is that fuel or soap substances used to clean up an earlier leak may have forced the migration of older fuel that was stored in subsurface rock, she said. Rep. Kai Kahele previously reported that the Navy used Simple Green household cleaner to remove oil from the Red Hill tunnel in November.
Another surprising observation was the scope of TPH-o contamination after the November leak, Grange said. The contamination heat map shows widespread high levels of TPH-o in November and December even though the leak supposedly happened in an isolated area the bottom end of the facility.
“We’re still working to sort out exactly how that happened or what the mechanisms are,” Grange said.
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