Navy water system sees increase in tap water, air quality complaints

Feb. 4—Ashley Smith noticed an increased chemical smell in the water in her Manana home a few months ago. Earlier this month, she said both of her children, ages 3 and 5 at the time, experienced a "burning sensation in their mouth" after drinking the water. The younger child also experienced stomach issues for "at least two and a half weeks afterwards."

Smith is one of an influx of residents on the Navy water system complaining of tap water and air quality issues over the past few weeks.

Army Maj. Amanda Feindt, who serves as a member of the Red Hill Community Representation Initiative, said that the group directly received over 50 complaints Monday and received 70 responses to a poll on the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Water Contamination Support Facebook group, in addition to complaints shared on neighborhood social media pages.

Residents are reporting a visible sheen on the water, a strong odor and chemical taste in the water, migraines, nausea, skin rashes, and eye irritation from vapors, among other symptoms.

Feindt said that this surge in complaints is the largest she's seen since the water was deemed safe in March 2022. But despite the unusual increase, Feindt said there has never been a cease in grievances over water quality.

"There are people that moved into the homes now that weren't here during the water crisis, and they're getting the same rashes and health impacts that my kids did when the water crisis first happened, and they weren't here in 2021," she said. "These homes are so contaminated."

Complaints pour in

The complaints are rooted in the Red Hill water crisis that began in November 2021, when fuel from the Navy's underground Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility leaked into the Navy's Oahu water system, affecting 93,000 people, including service members, military families and civilians who live in housing areas that use the water system.

The Navy is responsible for maintaining water quality, as the water purveyor for the water system, and is therefore primarily responsible for water testing, under regulatory oversight by the state Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Smith said that she reported the water quality issue to the Navy Emergency Operations Center on Jan. 3, where she was initially told that her housing wasn't on the water line and that there was "pretty much nothing they could do."

But Smith pushed back, saying that she knew that her home was on the water line at least at one point, as she had received a notice saying their housing was being switched back to the water line. She also contacted the DOH and EPA.

A few days later, the EOC conducted rapid response testing, with results coming back negative for contaminants. The EOC refused to do long-term monitoring sampling, however, because the Manana neighborhood was "not in the contract," Smith said.

Weeks later, Smith got a call from a long-term monitoring team that had been given permission to come to her home and sample water on a "case-by-case basis." The team also confirmed that her home was on the Navy's water system line.

Another issue that Feindt said residents were reporting was the Navy denying them results from hot water and bacteria tests conducted in their homes. A Navy spokesperson said that all residents who received hot water tests last October received their test results in December, and that hot water testing has not been conducted since. Hot water testing is not part of the routine rapid response testing.

The Navy said it is "finalizing its premise plumbing assessment report" that they will review with regulators before sharing with the public.

"While drinking water sample results continue to meet all federal and state safe drinking water standards, the Navy remains committed to identifying the cause of low-level Total Petroleum Hydrocarbon detections, and is working closely with regulatory agencies through the course of its ongoing root-cause analysis," the Navy said.

Feindt also complained that residents who requested in-home air quality tests were also getting denied. A Navy spokesperson said that indoor air quality monitoring is "not a component of the approved Long-Term Monitoring plan," but that they, along with their regulatory partners, are "looking into whether any additional testing is warranted."

On Monday, the state Department of Health said in a news release that it directed the Navy to test Waiawa shaft after it was "informed of approximately 50 complaints about tap water and air quality from Navy water system users."

A Friday news release from the Navy said that the Navy sampled the shaft Tuesday, with results coming back negative. Including Tuesday's sample, the Navy has tested Waiawa shaft eight times over the past two years with all results indicating no detection.

But Feindt doesn't think that's enough.

"We've tested the shaft a million times over. I'm fairly confident they've gotten rid of the problem in or around the shaft," she said. "But the tap water in the homes, the premise plumbing, the water that is coming out in people's homes is what needs to be really investigated. People are not cooking their food or bathing at that shaft. They are in their homes, and it's happening in their homes."

Testing continues

In its news release, the Navy said it is "surging personnel, resources, and expertise to respond to reports raising concerns about the quality of water from the Navy's water system." The Navy was notified of multiple complaints from the EPA on Jan. 26.

"The Department of the Navy's first priority is providing reliable and safe drinking water to those who live and work on the Navy's water system — service members, civilians, residents and their families, and members of the community," Rear Adm. Steve Barnett, commander of the Navy Closure Task Force-Red Hill, said in the release.

DOH, EPA, the Navy and Marine Corps Force Health Protection Command, and the Defense Health Agency have been conducting tests, analysis and exercise through solution sets for nearly a week, the release said, which will result in "a pathway to determine what the possible causes of the reported impacts are, additional actions the team can take to respond and offer care to people and address their concerns."

Additionally, a senior medical working group will be created and supported by Vice Adm. Scotty Gray, commander of the Navy Installations Command, to "ensure focused attention, information flow, and responses to the community."

The Navy said it will respond to all requests for testing it receives, as well as understand and address concerns forwarded from DOH and the EPA. The Navy also said it provides bottled water to residents while waiting for "validated test results from an EPA-certified laboratory" to confirm that the water meets federal and state safe drinking water standards. According to the news release, the Navy has been able to respond, test and provide resources to all known locations of reports, but that it "has not been able to connect a majority of reports to an individual or location."

DOH also requested contact information, including addresses, for the complaints.

"Once more information, such as addresses, is received on the new complaints, DOH staff will accompany Navy personnel as they collect water samples to ensure that protocols are followed," DOH wrote in a statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. DOH said it will also conduct its own testing at random addresses to verify results of the Navy's testing.

However, Feindt said she wants to see more urgency and a more proactive response moving forward, as well as reevaluating water safety levels.

"The DOH are in the spotlight now to take action and to really put their mission at play, and that is the health and safety of this community," she said. "We need to stop looking at every other possible thing that it could be and get into these people's individual homes, and until we can figure out what it is, (the Navy) needs to distribute an alternative water source or an alternate living situation."

Smith said there's "no way to put into words" the impact that the water crisis has had on her family.

"When we go to the doctor with potentially related concerns and there's this constant, 'Well, there's no evidence to connect it to the water,' it's very disheartening that not only can we not get answers from the Navy, but there's no clear way to get answers as to whether or not the water has damaged my 5-year-old's reproductive system or my son's GI or lungs," she said. "To be constantly told, 'Oh, your water's fine,' and then, 'Oh, your water is not fine,' and now, 'Your water's fine again,' it creates this sense of comprehensive distrust in the public sphere entirely."