Navy Admits Pearl Harbor Well Is Contaminated with Petroleum; Families Are Frantic

Navy officials conducted a virtual town hall to update residents of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on water contamination at the base.
Navy officials conducted a virtual town hall Thursday evening to update residents of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on water contamination at the base. From left to right: Capt. Michael Guinness, Pacific Fleet chief medical officer, Rear Adm. Dean VanderLey, Pacific Fleet chief engineer, Rear Adm. Blake Converse, Pacific Fleet deputy commander, Rear Adm. Timothy Kott, commander, Navy Region Hawaii, and Capt. James Meyer, commanding officer of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command, Hawaii. (Screen shot taken from Facebook)

The Navy confirmed Thursday that a well near Pearl Harbor is contaminated with a petroleum product, four days after military housing residents began reporting problems with their drinking water.

During a virtual town hall on Thursday night, Pacific Fleet Deputy Commander Rear Adm. Blake Converse said that the service's Red Hill well had tested positive for petroleum hydrocarbons late Sunday and petroleum vapors on Thursday.

He added that the Red Hill well "had been isolated" since Sunday, meaning the Navy took it out of service.

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"One test was taken on Sunday night shortly after this incident was identified to the Navy, and that test identified trace amounts of very volatile hydrocarbons that would normally be associated with JP-5 [jet fuel] or diesel fuel, more than likely JP-5 or gasoline," Converse said.

In a statement released Thursday, the Navy said the sample contained levels of petroleum hydrocarbons "roughly four to ten times below" the level required by the Hawaii Department of Health to require action to fix the problem.

But, they added, the service was taking steps to restore the well to Environmental Protection Agency standards for safe drinking water, and it will remain offline until the problem is solved.

On several occasions earlier in the week, Navy officials had said they had conducted tests that came back clean, including a Tuesday morning post on the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Facebook page that said "no measurable quantities of fuel [were] found."

Converse said the Red Hill well appears to be the only one affected, with tests on 14 others in the system coming back negative.

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Affected areas include some neighborhoods on Pearl Harbor-Hickam; Aliamanu Military Reservation, where many Army families live; and Red Hill and Nimitz Elementary Schools.

As a result of the findings, the service is working to authorize a temporary lodging allowance so that affected residents can pay for hotels -- a reimbursement that Navy officials said would likely start Friday.

Converse added that they also were looking at bringing in laundry service and are "working with the policy and legal folks" to see whether families can be reimbursed a portion of their housing allowance to offset costs associated with the pollution.

But Navy families say the efforts are not enough. Families had paid out of pocket to buy water before the Navy brought in trucks and were already staying in hotels, taking their laundry to laundromats and accruing veterinary bills as a result of their pets drinking the water.

Military family members also have become ill, developing headaches, rashes and nosebleeds and experiencing vomiting, diarrhea, and other health symptoms that have sent them to not only military health clinics but civilian urgent care and emergency rooms, where they could be billed for services.

Navy spouse Lou Tuttle, who previously spoke to about health problems her family has experienced, including an emergency room visit for her oldest child stemming from stomach and esophageal pain after drinking the water, said she is at her wits' end.

She  said she can't afford to pay out of pocket to go to a hotel and wait for the Navy to reimburse her husband, and added that the Army has moved families to hotels and set up a "one-stop shop" to help those affected.

To make matters worse, her house lost power Friday morning.

"So we have no water and no electricity. I don't know what to do. We are in completely substandard housing right now," Tuttle said. "I can't even warm the water to wash my kids."

A Navy spokesman confirmed that some housing areas on Pearl Harbor lost power Friday morning. 

The Navy and Army, which manages housing on the Aliamanu Military Reservation, also affected by the contamination, have received nearly 1,000 reports of contaminated water from residents.

The Hawaii Department of Health on Wednesday announced that its tests found petroleum products in samples taken at Red Hill Elementary School.

It subsequently advised all residents on the Navy water system to avoid using the water for drinking, cooking or oral hygiene.

And it said those who smelled any odor should avoid using the water for bathing, dishwashing and laundry.

The Navy has established a medical hotline number and special walk-in medical clinics for residents to receive medical advice and will establish a registry to track those affected, according to Converse.

Representatives with the Navy Marine Corps Public Health Center will arrive Monday to begin toxicology and environmental health support, he added.

Those living in areas where they had no contamination may be able to use the water for baths and showers as early as Friday and should have test results that would OK the water for drinking in three to four days, according to Converse.

Residents who reported an odor, sheen or distillate in their water, however, may have to wait up to 10 days to get the all-clear, he added.

"Based on the findings, the Navy will work with the Department of Health to revise the public health guidance and develop the way ahead so our families and other impacted people can return to a normal life with a safe, reliable water source," Converse said.

Converse said officials are working to determine what caused the contamination.

On Nov. 22, the World War II-era Red Hill accidentally released 14,000 gallons of fuel and water from a fire suppression system drain line, according to the Associated Press.

Navy officials said the system leaked the mixture into a tunnel, but after it stopped, the Navy removed the liquid and placed it in an above-ground storage tank.

At the time, Navy officials said there were no signs the fuel had escaped into the environment and the "drinking water was safe."

"As we get toward the accountability measures, we have an active investigation that encompasses recent events at the Red Hill compound, including the November leak, and it's going to be expanded to include investigating this incident and determine the root cause to take short-term and long-term corrective actions," Converse said.

During a hearing in Washington, D.C., Thursday before the Navy's announcement, Rep. Kai Kahele, D-Hawaii, held up a bottle of contaminated water, saying military families "need answers" about the situation and calling it a "crisis of astronomical proportions."

Kahele visited the affected neighborhoods earlier this week and took his own water samples.

"Almost 100,000 people are without water. Our military families, people are getting sick, animals are getting sick and our military families need answers," Kahele said. "What is happening on the ground in Hawaii is totally unacceptable."

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

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