Mercury, Other Contamination Found in Water Tests at Pearl Harbor-Hickam as Navy Announces New Fuel Spill

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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)

Mercury was found last month in a sink at an Oahu elementary school, not far from another elementary school where elevated levels of beryllium were detected during widespread testing of the Navy's water system in Honolulu.

The service announced Friday that a sample taken March 16 at Pearl Harbor Kai Elementary School contained mercury levels nearly twice the limit set by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The sample was taken from an indoor sink located in an administrative building "not regularly used by students," according to the Navy, and was isolated to the sink.

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News of the mercury finding was followed Saturday by an announcement from the Navy that "no more than" 30 gallons of fuel and water had spilled at the Red Hill Fuel complex. The accidental release occurred while workers were removing water from the fuel tanks, a process known as "dewatering."

Navy personnel halted the process, and the Hawaii Department of Health was called in to monitor the cleanup, according to a service press release.

Both incidents come amid extensive water testing around the Navy's Red Hill facility after a spill contaminated a water well last November, displacing more than 4,000 military personnel and family members and sickening roughly 6,000.

The Navy shut down the Red Hill facility and spent months flushing and testing the water system, sampling about 5% of the homes in affected neighborhoods. The service has said it will test about 10% of the homes every six months for the next two years.

The discovery of mercury in the school sink is likely related to a contaminated faucet, since no other water samples collected at the school or nearby buildings contained mercury. The faucet has since been replaced with new water safety results pending, according to the Navy.

In addition to the mercury, test results have yielded high levels of other contaminants including:

  • Beryllium in an outdoor sink at Pearl Harbor Elementary School, at a level one-fourth higher than the Hawaii Department of Health's accepted limit. The metal is used frequently in the aviation industry to create alloys and make gears, cogs, springs, aircraft, satellites and more.
  • Lead levels three times the legal limit in a laundry sink -- also not used by children -- at the Pier Side Child Development Center.
  • Levels of an organic compound known as DEHP seven times the allowable amount were detected in a vacant home on base. The same chemical, which is often added to plastics to make them flexible, was found at significantly higher rates in nonresidential buildings in three areas, including Catlin Park and Radford Terrace neighborhoods and the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard.
  • Petroleum contamination in a home in the Halsey Terrace neighborhood that tested at levels of 460 parts per billion, double the accepted level set by the health department of 211 parts per billion.

While there have been few studies on the health outcomes of long-term exposure to petroleum products in humans, mercury exposure, either chronic or acute, can damage the nervous system, causing tremors, mood swings or irritability; cognitive impairment; insomnia,; headaches; and more.

Lead poisoning, particularly in children, can impair development of the brain and other organs, causing developmental and intellectual delays and impairment, including reduced intellectual capacity and behavioral problems.

The Hawaii Department of Health announced March 18 that the tap water in all residential neighborhoods served by the Navy's water system at Pearl Harbor was safe to use and consume, after the service's extensive flushing work.

"On behalf of Secretary [Lloyd] Austin, we are incredibly proud of the diligent work done by the Interagency Drinking Water System Team to restore safe drinking water as well as by the hundreds of volunteers and the many people of Hawaii who helped our displaced families during this unfortunate situation," Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said in a press release after the announcement.

Families remain leery, however, with some paying for third-party testing or asking the Navy to test all individual homes to guarantee that the water is safe.

Navy wife Lauren Wright returned to her home in the Radford Terrace neighborhood last month to find her hot water heater destroyed by the contamination and the water showing a visible sheen.

Even after the second system flush in mid-March, the smell was "going back and forth," as was the sheen, she told Military.com

As of late March, the family was still using a camping shower with water from outside sources and were filtering all their water.

"We just want options and the truth," Wright said. "I told my son, 'Take a quick shower, it's safe,' and he said, 'But I don't want my skin falling off.'"

In the aftermath of the original fuel spill, the Navy created a crisis response team available 24 hours a day through the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Emergency Operations Center, according to the service.

In his statement in March, Del Toro encouraged families to reach out immediately with any concerns or issues regarding their water.

"We all recognize this has been a hardship for those families and want to thank them again for their patience and resilience," Del Toro said. "Our priority will continue to be their safety and returning them to a new, better normal."

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. 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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