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Rep. Kai Kahele calls Navy water contamination ‘a crisis of astronomical proportions in Hawaii’

                                Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele holds up a water bottle with contaminated water at during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.
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Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele holds up a water bottle with contaminated water at during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.

Hawaii Rep. Kai Kahele today said that the Navy “is currently experiencing a crisis of astronomical proportions in Hawaii” as military officials scramble to respond to hundreds of reports from residents that their tap water smells of fuel. Nearly 100,000 people in the areas of Moanalua and lower Halawa on Oahu have been told by state health officials not to drink the water.

“The Navy’s water system is contaminated with petroleum,” Kahele said during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.

“People are getting sick. Animals are getting sick. And our military families need answers and the island of Oahu needs answers,” he said.

Kahele said he visited impacted military families earlier this week. He said one mother, named Amanda, invited him to her home where her daughter was taking classes online because her school was shut down due to water contamination.

“Her family had been drinking the water for days,” said Kahele. “Her dog got sick, was vomiting. Her daughter went to the ER. Her son experienced an unusual sore on his mouth.”

Kahele said that Amanda texted him this morning to say she had gone to Tripler Army Medical Center’s emergency room last night because she had a headache and irritation in her mouth and throat.

“Her doctor diagnosed her with chemical burns in her mouth,” said Kahele. “She is worried, rightfully so, about her health and the health of her family.”

Kahele said another six-month pregnant woman emailed him last night who had been consuming the water. “She is rightfully in a panicked state,” said Kahele.

Kahele noted the Hawaii residents are increasingly calling for the Navy’s Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage facility, which could be the source of the contamination, to be shut down. The Navy has said the massive underground fuel storage tanks are critical to the Navy’s Pacific operations.

Kahele asked, if it is not possible to continue storing the fuel safely, how long it would take to drain the facility, where the fuel would be stored and what that would mean for the U.S. military.

Ricky Williamson, who is deputy chief of Naval operations, said he would need to get back to him on answers to those questions.

“We are committed to find the facts, get the root causes and make the appropriate corrections to anything we discover,” he said.

Williamson said that the situation is getting his leadership’s full attention. “We are taking it very seriously,” he said.

Numerous residents who receive their water from the Navy’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system have complained of symptoms that they worry are linked to the water. During town hall meetings with military officials this week and in interviews with the Star-Advertiser, residents, primarily military families, have reported skin rashes, nausea, diarrhea, headaches and stomach pains.

The Navy and Hawaii State Department of Health have been taking water samples all week and sending them off to a lab on the mainland for testing because there is no local lab capable of the needed level of sensitivity. The Navy said Wednesday that it still hasn’t figured out the cause of the contamination. While petroleum is suspected, it has not been confirmed by DOH or the Navy. The first results are expected today.

State health officials announced Wednesday that a water sample at Red Hill Elementary School had tested positive for a petroleum product. However, those University of Hawaii lab results, are preliminary and more detailed results are expected from the mainland lab.

Gov. David Ige issued a statement to the Star-Advertiser this afternoon calling the announcement deeply disturbing.

“Military families are members of our community,” Ige said in an email. “I’m concerned for the health and safety of those living in the affected areas and understand their need for timely and accurate information. I’ve urged the Navy to conduct a thorough investigation immediately and to take every precaution necessary to keep the community safe. I’ve also ordered the State Department of Health to continue independent testing and to be prepared to take immediate action to protect our drinking water.”

Lt. Gov. Josh Green also put out a statement today pressing the Navy to work in partnership with DOH and Hawaii’s congressional delegation to address the contamination.

“It is totally unacceptable for fuel to be leaking into the water that our children and families drink, and it has to be fixed immediately,” said Green.

Local lawmakers and representatives from the Hawaii Sierra Club and Armed Forces Housing Advocates, which advocates on behalf of military families, are holding a press conference at 1 p.m. today in downtown Honolulu to address “the health and safety crisis faced by families affected by contamination of the area’s Navy water supply” and discuss ways the community can help support relief efforts.

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