More than a Thousand Military Families in Hawaii Stuck in Hotels Through the Holidays

U.S. Marines and U.S. Army soldiers unload pallets of bottled water
U.S. Marines and U.S. Army soldiers unload pallets of bottled water at a water distribution point, Manana Housing Community, Pearl City, Hawaii, Dec. 14, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Hailey D. Clay)

The Navy's effort to restore clean drinking water to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, gets underway Monday while thousands of military personnel and families prepare to spend the holidays in hotels or in their homes without potable water.

The Navy announced that water line flushing is set to begin at the Pearl City Peninsula military housing area on Monday as a test run for flushing most of the lines that serve the installation.

Should the Pearl City test prove successful, the service will begin flushing the housing areas closest to the well that was found to contain JP-5 jet fuel after families complained Nov. 28 that their water smelled like fuel and was making them sick.

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As of Dec. 17, more than 1,600 military families and other occupants of base housing had been displaced to hotels, while another 2,200 were living in homes without potable water.

The services have each issued guidance to personnel on accessing temporary housing and other provisions, such as laundry services, drinking water and shower availability at nearby facilities.

The Navy plans to pay for temporary lodging for its service members through Jan. 4 and is providing partial temporary lodging allowance to cover meals for sailors who elect to stay in their houses.

The service also announced that it would host virtual daily updates to military families beginning Dec. 20 online and on the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Facebook page, and it has established a way for families to be reimbursed for expenses related to the exposure, including incidental expenses not related to property loss, such as veterinary expenses, buying water or laundry services.

    However, families have expressed frustration over what they see as a lack of answers from officials on the plan for ensuring that the water eventually will be safe to consume.

    "As far as our homes go, you are going to just pump filtered water into our PVC pipes that is going to fill my plastic tub, which is going to re-contaminate the water. You want me to put my child in that bath, wash my dishes in it? Trust the refrigerator water for drinking?" a resident asked officials at a Dec. 18 town hall.

    "We're very, very sensitive to this. Our No. 1 commitment is to the health and safety of the community," said Chris Waldron, an environmental engineer with Navy-Marine Corps Public Health Center. "The plan we put together is a comprehensive and systematic plan. It's not just a matter of doing one element and saying we are finished."

    The first of more than 20 massive granulated activated charcoal filtering systems began arriving on Oahu last week. They will be used to scrub more than 25 million gallons of water -- much like Brita water filters, but on an industrial scale.

    The intention is to scrub the water of enough contaminants to bring it in compliance with Hawaii Department of Health and Environmental Protection Agency requirements.

    Days after the contamination was confirmed, the Navy asked residents to run the taps in their homes and opened up fire hydrants to flush the water until the state, concerned about the effects of potential contaminants on groundwater and the storm drain system, ordered the service to stop.

    Residents told the smell from their taps was so strong that they elected not to do the flushing out of fear of inhaling more fumes.

    They also have been told to toss out nearly all their kitchen and bath items that may have come into contact with the water, such as coffee makers and blenders, toothbrushes and pots and pans, according to Navy wife Lou Tuttle.

    "The processes are so slow. Everyone is confused as to what we are [supposed to be] doing," Tuttle said.

    Navy officials said last week that they will share the plan for flushing out homes with residents, which will include draining the water from hot water heaters; flushing water lines to refrigerators and other appliances; and changing water filters.

    "That plan will be a very detailed plan and checklist with a whole bunch of items on it. It will not require the residents to implement that. It will be implemented by the Navy or its representatives, go into each house and perform the flushing," Waldron said.

    On Nov. 20, the Navy's World War II-era Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility accidentally released 14,000 gallons of fuel and water into a tunnel that houses a fire suppression system drain line.

    At the time, Navy officials said the mixture entered the tunnel and, after it stopped flowing, the service removed the liquid and placed it in an above-ground storage tank, believing that no fuel had escaped into the environment.

    The Navy now believes that the contamination of the Red Hill well was a result of that spill.

    Speaking to Hawaii state legislators Dec. 10, Navy officials said the contamination was not the result of a leak from the fuel facility -- an installation many residents and representatives of Hawaii would like to see closed since it sits above the aquifer that provides water to more than 400,000 area residents.

    "The Navy is responsible for this crisis. We are taking ownership of the solutions, and we are going to fix it," said Adm. Sam Paparo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, during the hearing.

    Short-term exposure to jet fuel can cause skin irritation 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 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. But the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency have not classified JP-5 as a human carcinogen.

    The Department of Defense developed an Oahu Military Water Contamination Incident Report Registry to track the long-term health of personnel and family members, as well as others who live in the affected areas.

    Residents will be automatically enrolled in the registry, according to the Navy.

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

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

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