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Military families’ water contaminated with fuel after Navy called it safe to drink

USS Jefferson City (SSN 759) departs Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. (U.S. Navy photo by Amanda R. Gray)
December 06, 2021

The U.S. Navy confirmed on Thursday that fuel was found in drinking water from a well servicing thousands of military families at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, and apologized for telling residents to continue drinking and using the water despite contamination concerns.

Following a November 22 fuel leak of the World War II-era Red Hill fuel storage facility near the base, nearly 1,000 military families reported that their water was contaminated and tasted like fuel. The U.S. Navy subsequently conducted tests and on December 3, determined “pretty conclusive indications that there are volatile petroleum products in the well” found in the water from the Red Hill well.

On December 3, a Navy press release confirmed the presence of “petroleum products” in the Red Hill well, and said that 13 of 14 samples taken had returned results negative for contamination.

Just days earlier, however, the Navy had said on November 30 that “no petroleum or contaminates have been detected” in the water supply based on U.S. Navy and Hawaii Department of Health testing. It advised the water was safe to continue using, and residents only needed to stop using it if “abnormal odors” were present.

“I can tell you at this point that there are no immediate indications that the water is not safe,” Joint Base Pearl-Harbor Hickam Commander Capt. Erik Spitzer wrote in a message to military families on November 27. “My staff and I are drinking the water on base this morning, and many of my team live in housing and drink and use the water as well.” 

In a subsequent letter on December 6, Spitzer said, “We mistakenly felt the initial tests (that indicated no detection of contamination ppm) meant we make drink the water … We truly thought the testing results indicated the water was safe to drink. We were wrong. I apologize with my whole heart that we trusted those initial tests.”

“I regret I did not tell our families not to drink the water. I am deeply remorseful. My apologies to you all,” Spitzer added.

Despite the Navy’s assurance, the Hawaii Department of Health had told military families to stop using the water on November 29.

“The DOH recommends all Navy water system users avoid using the water for drinking, cooking, or oral hygiene,” the department advised. “Navy water system users who detect a fuel odor from their water should avoid using the water for drinking, cooking, bathing, dishwashing, laundry or oral hygiene (brushing teeth, etc.).”

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply shut off one of its wells to prevent further contamination due to a shared underground aquifer.

The Red Hill fuel storage facility has been a source of multiple leaks over the years. It contains 20 25-story tall fuel tanks built in the 1940s. The tanks are located 100 feet above the aquifer.

Hawaii Rep. Kaiali’I Kahele, Hawaii Gov. David Ige, and the rest of Hawaii’s congressional delegation on Sunday publicly called on the Navy to immediately suspend operations of Red Hill as a result of the contamination.

The Navy is now providing hotel stays, bottled water, and mobile showers to military families affected by the contaminated water, and conducting water system flushes and ongoing sampling.