When Bridget Merancio, an Army wife with three young children, awoke on the morning of Nov. 29, her home smelled like an auto body shop, she recalls.
Her family had been sick for a week with nausea, diarrhea and respiratory problems. Even their dogs were throwing up. Merancio's 7-year-old son had what appeared to be chemical burns on his genitals, and the skin was peeling off. Now the odor coming out of the faucets of their Aliamanu Military Reservation home was overwhelming.
Everything came into sharp focus when Merancio began seeing reports that the tap water her family had been drinking and bathing in, which had an oily sheen to it, may be contaminated with petroleum. They were among hundreds of families on the Navy's drinking water system serving neighborhoods in and around Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam who began reporting chemical or fuel smells coming from their faucets and health symptoms as 2021's Thanksgiving holiday wrapped up.
Navy leaders put out an alert to military families, telling them to call a hotline if they suspected something was wrong with their water and that the Navy would send out a team to test it. "We are working aggressively to try to figure out what is in the water, " Rear Adm. Timothy Kott, who at the time was commander of Navy Region Hawaii, told military families at a town hall meeting early on in the quickly unfolding disaster.
The Merancios, who now live in Georgia, were among the first to call, but they would never find out exactly what was in their water. That's because the Navy never tested the Merancios' home for petroleum chemicals, or any of the other 1, 000-plus homes it took samples from in the first couple of weeks, following the water contamination.
Instead, the Navy did a rough screening of the samples for total organic carbon, which can indicate that the water is contaminated but not with what. The sample taken from the Merancios' home is simply listed as "non-detect " in the Navy's test data posted online, as are the vast majority of samples collected from homes.
The Navy told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser last week that other samples it collected from homes—it didn't say exactly how many—weren't tested at all after regulators determined the entire water distribution system would have to be flushed anyway.
"That makes me so angry, " said Merancio when told by the Star-Advertiser her home had been screened only for total organic carbon. Like other families interviewed by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, she assumed it had been tested for petroleum.
An everyday struggle
Many families have moved on with their lives, but the Merancios, particularly their 11-year-old daughter, have suffered devastating health problems.
When the family moved to Hawaii in December 2020, Merancio said, her daughter, who suffers from epilepsy, was completely stable. She went to school and took dance classes three times a week. But at the end of May 2021, her seizures started to become more frequent.
"Then everything seemed to come full force, " Merancio said. Her daughter has had memory loss, hearing loss, loss of feeling in her legs and constant pain in her body, according to her mother. She may have to have a section of her brain removed and is now homebound.
"Every day is a struggle. It's hard for her, " Merancio said.
Merancio said that knowing what specific chemicals were in her water and at what concentrations could maybe help her doctors figure out what triggered her daughter's sharp increase in seizures and related health problems.
"It would be nice to know what was in my water so I could help my child more, " she said.
On Dec. 2 the Navy confirmed that one of its three drinking water wells had been contaminated with jet fuel from its nearby Red Hill fuel facility, sending petroleum through its water system, which serves about 93, 000 people. Jet fuel contains hundreds of chemical compounds, including benzene, a known carcinogen, and naphthalene, which can cause liver and neurological damage from short-term exposure.
Some military families have worried there may have been other contamination in their water that was never identified, and suspect the fuel contamination began months before the November fuel spill at Red Hill. There was another spill at the facility in May 2021, and water sampling results from the Navy's Red Hill shaft had detected petroleum contamination that summer at levels above environmental action levels.
'I'll never know'
Army Maj. Mandy Feindt, with the assistance of her attorney, had been trying for months to get the results of the water sample from her former home on Ford Island. She had received a text shortly after the sample was collected Dec. 10 saying that it was "non-detect for TOC's, " but she didn't know what "TOC "—total organic carbon—meant and just assumed the Navy had tested it for petroleum chemicals. She wanted a copy of the results.
At one point, she said, a military official told her she would have to file an official records request with the government under the Freedom of Information Act.
Other responses from the military were confusing. Earlier this year in April, an Air Force colonel emailed her attorney, Kristina Baehr, to say that he was not aware of any test results for Feindt's home. "Further, (the Special Operations Command Pacific ) inquired and understands that individual home results are not releasable to commands or even services, " the official wrote in the email, a copy of which was provided to the Star-Advertiser.
She said her family, who is part of a lawsuit recently filed against the federal government over the water contamination, has also suffered health problems in the months following the November spill at Red Hill.
Feindt, who now lives in Colorado, said the Star-Advertiser was the first to explain to her that her home had not been tested for petroleum chemicals.
"How negligent is that ?" Feindt said. "So, I'll never know. I'll never know what my family ingested."
The Navy said the decision to screen home samples only for total organic carbon was made in an "effort to identify potential areas of concern within the distribution system."
"The Navy worked to keep all of those impacted by the water informed of updates (such as changes to sampling and flushing plan, the Interagency Drinking Water Team, etc.) via multiple methods, including social media updates, website postings, Facebook live updates, news releases, information shared via housing portals, and many other ways, " the Navy said.
Contaminants flushed Andrew Whelton, a professor of civil, environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University, is an expert in water contamination and response efforts. His team worked to identify the chemicals in the drinking water following the deadly 2018 Camp fire in California and helped the recovery operation in West Virginia when an industrial chemical spill in 2014 contaminated drinking water.
Beginning in mid-December, Whelton and a team worked for several weeks to assist with the Navy's Red Hill response. He said that the first step when there is drinking water contamination should be to figure out exactly what is in the water.
"For all disasters I get called in on, I ask the same question : Have you characterized the source of the contamination to determine what chemicals you should be looking for in faucets and the distribution system ?" he said.
The Navy did confirm Dec. 2 that its Red Hill shaft had been contaminated with jet fuel. But there is little data from early on to indicate what specific chemicals may have been present at dangerous levels in the drinking water system. On Nov. 30 the Navy started flushing its main distribution system, sending water gushing into the streets, and instructed all families to flush the water from their home pipes.
The Navy did send some early samples that it collected from public locations, such as community centers, to labs in other states for further testing. Those labs, certified by the Environmental Protection Agency, tested for petroleum contamination, including specific chemicals.
But the extensive flushing in the early days likely diluted the contamination, according to the state Department of Health. A review of nearly 40 pages of testing data from samples collected between Nov. 28 and Dec. 13 show just a few low-level detections of total petroleum hydrocarbons, the large family of chemical compounds found in fuel, at locations on the Navy's distribution system, all of which were well below the limit considered safe. The vast majority of samples tested by the Navy came up clean.
"During the initial response there was limited availability of laboratories to analyze samples for (total petroleum hydrocarbons ) in a timely manner, " the Navy said. The screening for total organic carbon was conducted in the Navy's Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam lab.
Samples tossed The Navy could have sent the samples that it collected from homes to the EPA labs for additional testing, but instead says it dumped the water and threw out the vials after one month of storage. The Navy didn't notify individual families about the results of their tests or tell households that their water samples were not screened at all.
"Due to limited personnel, families were not notified directly on the status of their samples collected, " said a Navy spokesperson by email. "The Navy was focused on identifying areas of concern to inform the recovery plan and did not have notification procedures in place at the time. The Navy posted all results publicly to the Safe Waters page, so residents could view the results of samples that were tested."
The Navy didn't say how many samples were thrown out without any screening, but said it tested the majority. Households that can't find the results of their water sample on the Navy's water data page can assume their sample was never tested.
That includes Belinda Miles, who recently retired from the Navy after 20 years. Her husband is a Navy officer. She said her family got sick in early December with nausea and diarrhea.
"We knew something was in the water ; we just didn't know what, " Miles said.
They had water samples collected from their kitchen sink, but her address isn't listed in the results posted online by the Navy.
Miles said she's had numerous health problems that she believes are related to the water contamination, including ringing in her ears, joint pain and hair loss.
"I would like to know what was in our water. I would like to know what my children and my pets and my husband and I were ingesting, " she said.
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