'We Have Put You in an Unsafe Condition': Top Navy Officials Apologize for Tainted Water at Pearl Harbor

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro tours the water system facility at Red Hill.
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro tours the water system facility at Red Hill to learn about the petroleum contamination that has affected thousands of military families. (Photo courtesy of Navy secretary's Twitter page)

The Navy's top civilian and military leaders apologized to residents of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam for exposing them to petroleum in their tap water and pledged to fix the service-managed water system.

During a town hall meeting with affected military families on Sunday, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said the service "stumbled" initially in communicating with families, adding they would be more transparent and build a "water system that they can completely trust."

"I deeply apologize to each and every one of you and to the people of Hawaii that this incident may have been destructive to your lives in any way," Del Toro said.

"We have put you in an unsafe condition, and that needs to be corrected," Gilday said.

Military families residing at the base and at Aliamanu Military Reservation began reporting Nov. 28 that their water smelled like fuel and had a visible sheen.

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Residents told Military.com that they developed unusual medical symptoms, such as headaches, nosebleeds, vomiting, diarrhea and rashes at least a week before the water began smelling.

Many sought medical treatment for themselves and their children at military and civilian hospitals and clinics. 

Others took their pets for veterinary care. A man who identified himself as an Army veterinarian said during the town hall that the clinic at Fort Shafter had treated 70 to 80 animals for hydrocarbon poisoning and referred out the most challenging cases. 

Some animals were so ill, they needed to be euthanized.

"It now makes sense why she would seemingly go days without drinking water and then vomit after drinking," said a tearful woman who identified herself as an Air Force wife. "I dare say you murdered my dog, but causation is not correlation, so I'm left to speculate."

After residents began complaining of an issue with the water, Navy and Hawaii Department of Health officials took samples.

The health department announced Dec. 1 that a test at Red Hill Elementary School, served by the Navy's water system, came back positive for petroleum products.

The Navy on Thursday confirmed that a well near Pearl Harbor tested positive for petroleum late Sunday and had been "isolated" since then, meaning it was taken out of service.

But on several occasions earlier in the week, Navy officials 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."

Gilday said the leaders were there to ensure transparency about the testing and way forward and regretted the earlier miscommunication. 

"We know we have stumbled, and we also know where we can do better. Open communication in forums like these are really important for us," Gilday said.

But one spouse at the town hall said that the communication continues to be inadequate. The wife, who said her husband is deployed, asked whether her neighborhood is affected and said she shouldn't have to check in with social media to get news and information.

She now has a rash and stomach cramps, she said.

"I've been drinking my water for a week and a half -- two weeks -- and been showering in it. I had COVID last year, and I can't smell anything, " she said. "My husband is over there pissed because you are supposed to be helping me."

On Sunday, Hawaii's congressional delegation and its governor called on the Navy to shut the Red Hill facility.

"Test results confirming contamination of drinking water at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam show that the Navy is not effectively operating the World War II-era facility and protecting the health and safety of the people of Hawaii, " wrote Gov. David Ige, U.S. Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz, and U.S. Reps. Ed Case and Kaiali'i Kahele to Del Toro in a statement released by their offices.

In early November, they asked the Defense Department's inspector general to launch an independent investigation into the Navy's operations at Red Hill following a pipeline leak.

Del Toro pledged to focus on the concerns of the families, particularly pregnant women and nursing mothers, who expressed anxiety over whether their unborn and newborn babies will be affected by the water.

He said he would direct the Navy surgeon general to establish a separate hotline specifically for pregnant women and would publish guidance on nursing.

According to the Navy, about 20% of the 7,000 homes on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, including three Air Force and five Navy neighborhoods, are affected. Two Army communities also served by the Navy's Red Hill well also are affected.

The Honolulu Star Advertiser reported Monday that water sampling of the well was contaminated more than a month ago, according to reports given to the Hawaii Department of Health by the Navy.

As of Friday, the Navy and Army had received nearly 1,000 reports of concern from residents.

Rear Adm. Blake Converse, deputy commander of the Pacific Fleet, said the service does not have a timeline for fixing the issues but hoped to have one in the next few days.

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

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