Preliminary tests have found petroleum contaminants in water samples from a school in the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system serving primarily military children, Hawaii Health Department officials announced Wednesday.

A military housing advocacy group has called on the Defense Department and the state of Hawaii to declare a state of emergency because of the water issues in the Navy water system. “The detection of petroleum in the water supply coupled with the illnesses reported by families using the water should warrant an immediate emergency response from all levels of the government,” stated Armed Forces Housing Advocates, in an announcement. The group has been in touch with families, offering donated water supplies and arranging for off-base sites for families to use for bathing.

Residents are concerned that their water is being contaminated by another fuel and water spill near the Navy’s Red Hill facility, which happened sometime over the weekend of Nov. 20 and Nov. 21.

The preliminary analysis was conducted on samples from Red Hill Elementary School that were collected Tuesday, and analyzed at a lab at the University of Hawaii, Hawaii Department of Health officials said. The school is one of the sites in the Navy water system where fuel-like odors have been detected in the water, including a number of military housing areas, where families have reported a variety of symptoms. Samples have been sent to a lab in California for further analysis, health department officials said.

The Navy has also been conducting preliminary tests this week on water samples from various sites, and so far the tests have been negative for petroleum contaminants, a spokesman told Military Times Wednesday evening. The tests are ongoing and samples have been sent to a lab on the mainland for further analysis, he said.

On Tuesday, Hawaii Health Department officials advised all Navy water system users to avoid using the water for drinking, cooking, or oral hygiene. And, they added, “Navy water system users who detect a fuel odor from their water should avoid using the water for drinking, cooking, bathing, dishwashing, laundry or oral hygiene.”

Red Hill Elementary, located in Honolulu, serves about 420 students, about 70 percent of whom are military children, according to the school’s website. It’s a Hawaii public school, but the students are from Aliamanu Military Reservation, Red Hill Makai and Moanalua Hillside Apartments.

Hawaii Department of Health officials stated they’ve had more than 175 complaints about the odor from consumers of the Navy’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system, including Aliamanu Military Reservation, Red Hill and Nimitz elementary schools, and military housing. The schools had stopped using the tap water because of the smell.

During a town hall meeting at Aliamanu Military Reservation Wednesday evening, a panel of experts, including a military doctor, answered military families’ questions. Navy officials also held town hall meetings Tuesday night for residents in other affected communities. One resident said officials said the meetings will be held nightly.

The Navy’s testing of water samples is ongoing, said Chuck Anthony, spokesman for Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, in a response to Military Times Wednesday evening.

“We have so far collected about 100 samples from residents who expressed concerns about their water. Of those, more than 20 have been completed and all have come back negative for hydrocarbons. We have sent off several dozen samples to a mainland lab, which can test to a greater sensitivity and can test for a broader spectrum of possible contaminants. We are awaiting those results,” he said.

The Hawaii Department of Health has received more than 175 complaints about fuel-like odors in water, officials stated. The complaints are all from users of the Navy water system.

A number of residents of Hawaii military housing areas with Navy-supplied water are wondering where the fuel smell in their water is coming from, and are fearful about how it’s already affected their health, after drinking and using the water. Families were frustrated by the lack of communication from military and housing officials about possible water issues, and conflicting information they were receiving.

Military spouses interviewed by Military Times described babies having diarrhea, and family members with symptoms such as unexplained headaches, nausea, stomach pain, mouth sores, throat and eye irritation, exhaustion and irritability which started in the week after the fuel and water spill.

The Makalapa Clinic at the joint base, and Tripler Army Medical Center, “have examined more than a dozen patients who have expressed concerns or who may be experiencing a rash or gastrointestinal systems, possibly related to water consumption. Primary health care providers will continue to monitor these individuals,” said Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam spokesman Chuck Anthony.

The Navy began distributing bottled water and providing water from water trucks Tuesday afternoon to affected areas, he said, and will continue for as long as necessary.

Armed Forces Housing Advocates have worked with donors to help affected families get safe water, and have also worked to secure two sites for families to bathe, at two Planet Fitness locations in in Oahu, with proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test, and a military ID.

Residents concerned about their water quality can also shower at certain fitness centers, gyms and pools on base, according to the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Facebook page.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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