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Health officials recommend Navy water system residents avoid use after reports of 'fuel-like odor'


The U.S. Navy said it was investigating reports of a "chemical smell" in drinking water at some military homes in the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam area Sunday evening. The Navy said there was no "immediate indication" that the water is unsafe.

But around 7 p.m. Monday, the state Department of Health recommended that "all Navy water system users avoid using the water for drinking, cooking, or oral hygiene."

"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," the health department said.

The Navy said they were testing water from multiple locations and engineers have visited some of the homes — and the Navy’s drinking water wells.

"There was no smell or sign of fuel or chemicals in the water at the Navy’s water wells and water tanks," the Navy said.

One school in the area, Holy Family Catholic Academy and Preschool, shut its doors Monday in an abundance of caution. Families told HPR they reported smelling fumes in water in the cafeteria.

The Hawaiʻi Department of Education confirmed Nimitz Elementary and Red Hill Elementary also reported smelling fumes. They taped off their sinks, handed out bottled water, and prepared lunches without using water.

A military wife — who did not want to be identified by name — told HPR her family was not using water from the faucet.

"We're being told that there's no evidence that it's unsafe, but when we turn on the tap, it smells — it is diesel fuel, like in our water. It is jet fuel coming out of our tap," she said.

The woman said her husband, a diesel mechanic, identified the smell as well.

"I just want (the Navy) to just acknowledge that there is something going on with our water and that, probably shouldn't be drinking it — even like I said, out of an abundance of caution," she said. "I just want it to be acknowledged in an honest and timely way."

The Navy said it continues to investigate. The Navy and the Hawaiʻi Department of Health said they were in contact about testing the water.

"Until we know for sure what is in the water, we cannot say for certain if the water is or is not safe for any kind of consumption, " said Joan Corrigan, a spokesperson from the Department of Health, in an email sent to the military mom and other residents. "However, based on reports we are getting from consumers, we do recommend finding another water source for the time being."

State Rep. Sonny Ganaden, who represents the area, said his office received numerous complaints about the issue.

"What we’re hoping is that residents of Pearl Harbor aren’t the canary in the coal mine — that they aren’t the first ones that will be affected by a fuel leak into Honolulu’s water supply," Ganaden said. "We’re also seeing the possibility of a public panic. That is the biggest concern for me as a state legislator who has sworn to uphold the state constitution which protects water for all of our constituents."

This is a developing story. This interview aired on The Conversation on Nov. 29, 2021.

Updated: November 29, 2021 at 8:12 PM HST
Updated with the state Department of Health's new recommendations.
Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Sophia McCullough is a digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Scott Kim was a news editor at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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