Water Poisoning in Hawaii Puts US Military in Crisis

Water Poisoning in Hawaii Puts US Military in Crisis

Located on the shores of Pearl Harbor is a vast government fuel storage facility, which has served as a fuel supply for military vessels and planes moving across the Pacific Ocean ever since World War II.

Years ago, its existence was a secret. Few people knew about the declassification - that is, until late last year, when jet fuel leaked into a well and showed up in tap water, sickening thousands of soldiers.

Native Hawaiians, veterans, liberals, and conservatives are all advocating the shutdown of the tanks, despite the Navy's objections.

Military doctors have examined more than 5,900 people who've complained of nausea, headaches, and rashes. We've moved about 4,000 mostly military families into hotels and brought water treatment systems from the mainland.

Within six weeks of the water crisis, the Navy spent more than $250 million on public health.

“I honestly think it's a nightmare and a disaster. It's a disaster," said Congresswoman Kaiali'i Kahele.

During a hearing in December, Kahele, a combat pilot who is still in the Hawaii National Guard, called the crisis astronomical. The Navy takes the blame for the crisis.

Last month, Deputy Pacific Fleet commander Blake Converse told lawmakers, "We caused this problem. We're going to fix it."

Early in the 1940s, the military dug caverns within the mountain ridge to protect 20 fuel tanks from aerial attacks. It can hold 12.5 million gallons (47.32 million liters) and is about the height of a 25-story building.

Fuel is transported from the tanks to ships and planes used by the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy through underground pipelines about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers).

It is unknown how petroleum ended up in the water—an investigation into whether jet fuel entered a fire suppression system drainpipe when a pipe ruptured last May. On Nov. 20, fuel reportedly leaked into the drinking water well from the second pipe.

Military families started complaining about health problems after a week.
Wright remembers feeling nauseous, her skin peeling and vomiting. Only after she stopped drinking, showering, and washing dishes with her home's water did she get better.

“It's not right - to do this to your families,” said the proud Navy spouse.

As a result, Wright, her family, and her husband have lived in hotels in Honolulu since early December to have clean water.

The Navy has been pumping petroleum out of the aquifer and cleaning up the contaminated well. Efforts are also underway to flush clean water through the Navy's water system, which services 93,000 people living and working in and around Pearl Harbor. Teams are washing individual water systems in homes and office buildings.

However, Wright said Marines sent to flush a neighbor's house didn't follow a checklist and had to learn how to do it from a neighbor.

"We're all scared to go back to toxic homes," she said.

In 2014, 27,000 gallons (123,000 liters) of water leaked from one tank.

The Navy blamed ineffective oversight and contractor error. Honolulu's most crucial aquifer is just 100 feet (30 meters) below the tanks, but the Navy won't move it.

About 20 percent of the water in the city comes from the aquifer. As a result of the latest spill, Honolulu's water utility shut down three wells to prevent petroleum from migrating into the drinking water.

In the summer months, when water demand increases and the largest of the three wells remains closed, there is a risk of rationing or outages for about 400,000 people in downtown and Waikiki.

Navy officials announced last month that they would comply with an order from Hawaii Gov. 

David Ige not to use the tanks until they were safe. Recently, the agency changed course and requested additional time.

Commanders are briefing Congress on the long-term effects of draining the tanks, not affecting short-term Pacific operations.

Representative Bob McDermott, a Republican from Hawaii, argues that residents should get rid of the tanks forever as they pose a safety hazard. The Marine officer has two sons in the Navy, one of whom is a Marine veteran, and the other is presently enrolled in Marine Corps boot camp.

McDermott said, "These things are too old for me, and they must fill them in with dirt in the future."

Forty-eight of the 51 members of the state House of Representatives sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asking him to decommission the tanks. A bill is being considered to prohibit them.

The Hawaii congressional delegation secured language in recent legislation requiring the Navy to study fuel storage alternatives.

Honolulu city councilmember Esther said if the Navy doesn't close the tanks for good, the public's trust in the military will be damaged.

By not shutting them down, she warned that the military could lose the right to lease state lands under sites like Pohakuloa Training Area, a Big Island site used by the Army and the Marines.

Converse said the Navy is restoring public trust during the congressional hearing.

"We are deeply aware of how these events affected the lives of so many people, and we are committed to restoring safe drinking water in a manner that will build trust and protect the land and waters of Hawaii," Converse said.

Since Pearl Harbor was built in the early 1900s, Hawaii has been a strategic outpost for the U.S. military. The state spends 8.5% of its gross domestic product on defense.