Camp Lejeune all over again | Beaufort County Now | Bad water

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)

Karen Jowres, reporting in, writes:

It’s been more than eight weeks since residents in Hawaii military housing started smelling and seeing fuel in their water. Two months since they were driven from their homes. And they’re exhausted.

“I’m frustrated, and I’m tired of living in survival mode. It’s exhausting!” said one Navy submariner’s wife who asked to remain anonymous.

None of the more than 9,000 households affected have been given the all-clear that their water is safe. Some are struggling with the uncertainty of when they’ll be able to return, questioning whether their homes will be safe and dealing with some issues in trying to get reimbursed for hotel stays and other expenses. Meanwhile, unanswered questions loom about possible long-term health effects, especially for children.

Residents of one housing area — Pearl City Peninsula — were notified Wednesday that they’ll be waiting even longer. After the homes were flushed to remove the contaminants from the water, follow-up test results for one sample from a four-unit multi-family residence building came back showing levels of a petroleum compound that exceeded Hawaii Department of Health standards.

The water crisis has affected more than 9,000 households at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and the Army’s Aliamanu Military Reservation and Red Hill communities, which are on the Navy water system. Navy, Army, Air Force and some Coast Guard members and their families are among those affected.

Families began smelling fuel in their water Nov. 28. After initial tests for contaminants were negative, the Navy sent water samples to the mainland for further testing and confirmed Dec. 3 that petroleum products were found. The problem has been linked to a Navy fuel spill about a week earlier at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. Navy officials told lawmakers Jan. 11 the Navy takes responsibility for the problem, and the Navy will fix it. The spill was likely the result of “operator error,” officials said.

The lack of potable water has displaced families from their homes and most are living in hotels at government expense, although some have chosen to stay in their homes using bottled water and bulk water provided by the military. Laundry services, shower facilities, medical screenings and other assistance is also being provided.

“The families have been out of their houses for almost 60 days,” said Kate Needham, founder and executive director of Armed Forces Housing Advocates, a group that has been actively involved in helping the affected families in Hawaii. “In general, their tone is starting to change. Frustration is now turning from being mad at the Navy for this happening, to acceptance that it happened, and they’re scared about the future, and the lack of information.”

Families are frustrated with their privatized housing landlords and the military for a variety of reasons, Needham said. Some contend that service members shouldn’t have to pay their Basic Allowance for Housing during this time without water, even though they’re getting extra allowances for hotel expenses.

While the families’ lives have been upended, they don’t want the process to be rushed, and they want to be sure the water is safe before they return to their homes.

While the Navy has been flushing out the water system to remove contaminants that may remain, families continue to worry about the safety of their homes and they’re pressing for more test results.

The Navy has started posting results from tests of the water distribution system as they are validated by an interagency team, comprising representatives of the Hawaii Department of Health, Environmental Protection Agency, the Navy and Army. The services have brought in scientists, engineers and other experts from around the world to work on the process for flushing and ensuring the water is safe.

A number of families also contend that many of their appliances, such as washers and dishwashers, should be replaced because of the fuel contamination. But there’s conflicting information from the military and appliance manufacturers about whether those appliances are safe to use after coming in contact with the fuel-tainted water, said one resident who attended a Jan. 24 Army town hall.

“We’re tired. We’re so, so tired,” she said. “One thing that’s causing me and so many others in the community to be tired is the uncertainty. It’s so hard, as a resident, to sift through. … I want to take my kids back into my house, and I want to feel safe. And I want to know that what you’re saying came from research that’s related to this contamination. …”

Military officials have said in town hall meetings that based on what they know, and based on the level of fuel contamination, the appliances can be flushed and they’ll be safe. Maj. Gen. Joseph Ryan, senior commander of U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii, told the residents during the town hall that officials will get more answers from manufacturers on questions about the safety of appliances.

Island Palm Communities, which operates housing at Aliamanu Military Reservation, is working to replace plastic tubing in appliances, said Army Col. Alicia M. Masson, commander of U.S. Army Environmental Command.


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