Pearl Harbor Residents Lose Drinking Water Again After Trauma of Red Hill Spills

A water sample is collected on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
A Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command contractor collects a water sample on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam as part of an interagency-approved plan for long-term monitoring of drinking water. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mar’Queon A.D. Tramble/U.S. Navy photo)

Service members and families stationed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam could be without water for another week or longer after breaks in primary pipes on Friday cut off service to most of the base.

The breaks left thousands of homes in the Hawaii base community without safe drinking water and forced the closure of all but one of the base's 12 child development centers, according to the Navy. The service said repairs will take seven to 10 days.

The latest headache over potable water comes just as the base had begun to recover and move on from fuel spills at the Red Hill storage depot that contaminated tap water in the very same homes last fall. Those earlier spills may have sickened nearly 2,000 residents and forced hundreds to seek medical treatment.

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On Monday, the base told residents that water usage "is restricted to essential use only" -- namely personal hygiene and bathroom use. Furthermore, the base remains under a boil water advisory for any water that would be used for drinking or cooking.

A 36-inch break in a water line was discovered Friday morning, and smaller breaks were later discovered in several other areas, Capt. Mark Sohaney, the base commander, wrote in an Oct. 14 letter. Sohaney said that the repairs were "ongoing" in an update Monday.

"Fixing a line of this size presents an engineering challenge and there hasn't been any easy fixes," Sohaney wrote Sunday in a Facebook post. The Navy says it is looking "at about 7-10 days" as the current estimate to repair the damaged water system.

The Navy has been distributing water since the main broke but noted in public communications it would be limited to one gallon per person in each household per day. Barracks residents were issued bottled water, according to Sohaney.

But the impacts spread beyond the thousands of homes and closure of child development centers. Commands on base also lowered their manning to minimal levels, and base services like clinics and other medical facilities were affected, according to the Navy. However, schools are currently open, and the Navy says dining facilities are running as usual.

As the situation developed, Sohaney posted messages and updates to the base's Facebook page, and he participated in an online town hall on Sunday. However, the Navy's reputation on base, especially on the topic of water safety, has been tarnished by its handling of the Red Hill fuel spill.

Sohaney's predecessor, Capt. Erik Spitzer, notably told base residents in late November there were "no immediate indications that the water is not safe," adding that "my staff and I are drinking the water on base this morning, and many of my team live in housing and drink and use the water as well." The next day, though, the Hawaii Health Department advised residents to avoid drinking or using the water in any way.

On Dec. 5, Spitzer publicly apologized for trusting the initial test results and misleading the sailors and families living on base. In June, he was awarded the Legion of Merit -- an award that cited "his response to the Red Hill water contamination incident" -- ahead of his retirement.

A law firm that represents families impacted by the fuel spill said that "this event is adding trauma to the families already traumatized by jet fuel contamination last year" in a letter sent Sunday to the four-star admiral who commands the Pacific Fleet, Adm. Sam Paparo.

The letter also urged Paparo to step up medical care for family members and impacted civilians, as well as give sick families a chance to leave their assigned houses or transfer off the island.

"The additional crisis provides a new opportunity for the Navy to do right by these families, and take the corrective action requested of you all along," the letter says.

The break has also forced a halt to the efforts to drain and close the Red Hill facility, though the base is assuring residents that is "to limit the number of people on the installation to decrease the amount of water being used" and not any concern over new contamination or leak.

This latest water crisis also comes just days after the Navy admitted that sailors aboard another aircraft carrier have had to deal with concerns about their drinking water while at sea. The USS Abraham Lincoln is dealing with a contamination of E. coli, a source for which has not been identified.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: Commander Retires with Award After Red Hill Disaster -- and Mistakenly Telling Residents to Drink the Tainted Water


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