There's Petroleum in the Navy's Water System, Hawaii Health Department Finds

An aerial view of the USS Arizona and USS Missouri Memorials
An aerial view of the USS Arizona and USS Missouri Memorials at Ford Island, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Diamond Head, Honolulu and Waikiki are in the distance. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Johans Chavarro)

Petroleum has been found in water from a Navy-managed treatment plant in Honolulu, the Hawaii Department of Health announced Wednesday.

Health officials said testing at Red Hill Elementary School showed positive results for petroleum in the drinking water and they planned to send samples to California for further analysis.

The tests followed complaints that began Sunday from residents at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam that their tap water smelled like fuel and had an oily sheen.

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Families posted on social media and notified authorities they were experiencing symptoms as a result of exposure to the water, including rashes, nausea and nosebleeds from the odor and contamination.

Navy officials initially said they examined the wells servicing the affected neighborhoods and found no signs of a smell or fuel.

On Tuesday, however, the Hawaii Health Department said that all customers of the Navy's water system, which serves roughly 93,000 people at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and elsewhere, should avoid drinking or cooking with the water or using it for oral hygiene, even if they didn't smell anything wrong.

They added that if the water did smell, they should "avoid using the water for drinking, cooking, bathing, dishwashing, laundry or oral hygiene (brushing teeth, etc.)."

Navy spouse Lou Tuttle said Thursday that the warning came too late for her 14-year-old son, who went to the emergency room for stomach pains, nausea and vomiting. The teen has been diagnosed with exposure to a toxic substance, according to Tuttle.

"He has a fire in his stomach, his stomach is burning, all of his esophagus hurts," Tuttle said. "The Navy is still denying there is a problem."

Early Monday, Navy officials said they were investigating the reports of a chemical smell in drinking water but hadn’t found any signs of contamination, according to a post on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Facebook page.

As complaints began mounting, however, the service increased its response, establishing a special phone line for residents to call with concerns by Tuesday afternoon.

Navy officials then announced they were flushing the water lines and asked residents to run the water in all their faucets for three to five minutes to eliminate any contaminants.

Tunnel inside the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility in Pearl Harbor.
A tunnel inside the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Jan. 26, 2018. The state says a lab has detected petroleum product in a water sample from an elementary school near Pearl Harbor. (U.S. Navy via AP)

They called emergency town hall meetings in the affected neighborhoods Tuesday night, published a list of available places for residents to shower and established a web site to provide information.

On Wednesday Navy officials began handing out water to residents of some base neighborhoods.

Tuttle said some families are using shower facilities at public beaches because they don't trust the water source at the on-base gymnasiums and facilities being offered to them.

She added that off-base laundromats are taking reservations because they have so many customers.

"My six-year-old's hands are raw from using hand-sanitizer." Tuttle said. "Since the beginning of the pandemic the Navy has been telling us to wash our hands. Water is crucial, especially during a pandemic."

As of Wednesday, the Hawaii Department of Health had received more than 175 complaints about the water, all from users of the Navy water system.

Armed Forces Housing Advocates, a nonprofit that supports service members and families living in base housing, received 456 complaints on Sunday alone.

"It's very upsetting," said Sarah Lenox, the group's environmental hazards advocate. "We're very angry as an organization about what's going on. One drop of gasoline or fuel or whatever it is, in the water is one drop too many."

Depending on the type of petroleum substance, short-term exposure can cause irritation to the skin or swelling and burning through direct contact. Inhaling fumes may cause symptoms such as headache, dizziness, confusion, nausea, or vomiting, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Very few human studies have been done on the long-term effects of exposure to gasoline and jet fuel. Some animal studies have demonstrated that the products may cause some types of cancer and neurological damage, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Navy officials said Wednesday they are investigating the issue.

"The Navy is continuing to collect and test samples, inspect water distribution systems and other parts of the Navy's water distribution system to identify and characterize the source of the issue with the water," officials wrote in a release.

Tuttle said she'd like to see them admit there is a problem and fix it.

"Safe, clean drinking water. It's a basic human right," Tuttle said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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