Almost a year after the Navy’s water system was contaminated by a fuel leak, hundreds of people are still experiencing negative health impacts after drinking the tainted water, according to the results of a state and federal government survey released Wednesday.

Nearly 1,000 people affected by the crisis were surveyed in September, representing only a fraction of the 10,000 households near Pearl Harbor that received contaminated water.

Of those respondents, 80% – that’s 788 people – reported symptoms in the last 30 days such as headaches, skin irritation, fatigue and difficulty sleeping. Of those who were pregnant during the crisis, 72% experienced complications, according to the survey

Lacey Quintero holds her album with 6-pages of medical reports during her testimony during the Department of Health Fuel Tank Advisory Committee Meeting held at the Capitol Auditorium.
Lacey Quintero brought a binder of her family’s medical records to the Hawaii Fuel Tank Advisory Committee meeting in the Capitol Auditorium. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which conducted the survey with the Hawaii Department of Health, did not make a judgment on the cause of the health problems – chronic health issues lingering from last year or the result of some ongoing exposure. However, the Navy and DOH have maintained that the water has been safe to drink for months.

On Wednesday, Lacey Quintero, a veteran and military spouse, told the Hawaii Fuel Tank Advisory Committee, which monitors the Navy’s Red Hill activities, that she still has migraines, ringing in her ears and dizziness when she tries to stand up. 

“We were all healthy before we moved here,” she said. “We’ve been sick every day since then.” 

The week of Thanksgiving 2021, families started to report illnesses, including rashes and nausea, and a chemical smell in their water. Families had to move out of their homes and into hotels for months before the water was finally deemed safe in all areas in March.

Numerous impacted families, including Quintero’s, say they have had to spend thousands of dollars out of pocket for medical expenses brought on by the crisis and feel a lack of support, financial and otherwise, from the Navy. 

“We’ve used up our rainy day fund,” Katherine McClanahan, the wife of an Air Force reservist, told Navy officials on Wednesday. “So I’m here asking, what can you do for us?” 

Rear Adm. John Wade, commander of the Red Hill Joint Task Force, said he wasn’t aware of any defense department program to assist families in covering their medical expenses. However, he promised to pass the testifiers’ messages along to his superiors.

“I hear you loud and clear,” he said.

Pleas For Help

McClanahan testified that she has experienced numbness, tremors, twitching, migraines and ringing in the ears. Her doctor said she also has impairment to her cerebellum, the part of the brain that deals with balance and other motor functions. She implored Navy officials to share the ingredients of the fuel contamination with impacted families so their doctors can better treat them. 

“We want the best chance of a healthy life,” she said, standing next to a gallon-sized bag of her medication bottles. “We need your help.” 

Beyond physical symptoms, the CDC survey also found residents were traumatized by the experience: 57% of the respondents think about it every day, and 40% reported anxiety. 

Even though Quintero’s family has moved to Waipahu – where water is supplied by the civilian water utility – she said she worries a fuel plume will migrate to the well that serves her neighborhood. 

“I live in fear every single day,” she said. 

Katherine McClanahan shares her medical issues from ingesting fuel from the spill during a Department of Health Fuel Tank Advisory Committee Meeting held at the Capitol auditorium. Cassie Chee, left is assisting by holding a bag containing all McClanahan's medications.
Katherine McClanahan talked about the medical issues she experienced after ingesting fuel from Red Hill. Cassie Chee, left, held up a bag containing McClanahan’s medications. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

She’s not the only one. 

More than half of respondents reported they are still concerned about their water, and 85% are still using alternate water sources for drinking, the survey found. 

Nearly a third reported seeing a sheen or detecting a smell in the water recently. The Navy and state health department have not offered an explanation for these observations. 

The Navy is the primary entity doing water testing in the aftermath of the crisis. The health department reviews the results they submit. 

On Wednesday, Navy Capt. Cameron Geertsema, commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command, acknowledged that the military discarded many of the water samples it collected at the beginning of the crisis, a fact first reported by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Once they determined fuel was in the system, he said officials prioritized responding to the contamination over preserving samples that could’ve shown detection levels in individual homes. That decision has upset a lot of families.

In response to the survey results, the CDC recommended that a third party do some of the water sampling to build trust with the community and address concerns on demand. 

The team encouraged continued drinking water monitoring, which is ongoing, and ensuring that water quality test results are “easily accessible and understandable for the public.” 

The CDC also suggested a review of defense department medical records to track symptoms in the community and encouraged the creation of a registry, like one created in response to water problems in Flint, Michigan, through which victims can be connected to services. 

An official report on the survey findings will be released in the coming months, according to the Hawaii health department. 

‘Such A Waste’

Meanwhile, the Navy has pumped and dumped over a billion gallons of water from Oahu’s primary aquifer in an effort to clean up the fuel contamination under its World War II-era fuel facility, Navy officials said at the meeting. 

While residents are under an advisory to reduce their water usage by 10%, the Navy has spent the last nine months pumping about five million gallons a day from the Red Hill well, filtering it and dumping the clean water in the Halawa Stream. 

Red Hill well pipe will pump up to 5 million gallons of contaminated water to 8 tanks that contain granulated carbon to filter the contaminants and then be discharged thru these large pipes into the Halawa Stream.
The Navy has been discharging 5 million gallons of filtered water into the Halawa Stream every day for months. Community members say it could be put to better use. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The plan was approved by the Hawaii Department of Health in January after fuel leaks at Red Hill tainted the drinking water supply. The idea was to suck the tainted water out of the aquifer to control the spread of the contamination and filter it with a granular activated carbon filtration system. 

The Navy and Department of Health have discussed the possibility of reusing that water for some purpose, like irrigation. But as of this week, there is still no water reuse plan. 

That’s not acceptable, according to Hawaii Fuel Tank Advisory Committee member Melanie Lau.

“It’s such a waste,” she said at the meeting. “It’s been 11 months. You haven’t come up with a reuse plan. It doesn’t feel good or helpful to us.”

Hawaii Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathy Ho said the health department has urged the Navy to produce a water reuse plan but hasn’t received one yet. She said the Navy is working on a study to explore its options.  

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