In a heartbreaking moment on Monday, a lone military spouse stood before senior Navy leaders and demanded honesty regarding the water contamination at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.
“At this point, I know your seat has been hot for a few days,” the woman identified by the Today Show as Lauren Bauer said to Navy officials, including Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro during an on-base town hall event.
“And whatever you knew before this incident became widely publicized and picked up internationally by the media is between you and your maker,” Bauer says, her voice shaking. “But now I ask with all eyes and ears on you that you fix this, and you fix it honestly, and I implore you to truthfully let us know how long we’ve been exposed so we can take precautions in the coming years and decades.”
The Navy has been scrambling to get a handle on a water contamination issue at the joint Navy and Air Force base, which is home to roughly 20,000 service members and thousands more dependents. The Red Hill fuel storage facility was built in World War II, according to the Associated Press, and sits above an aquifer that provides almost 20% of Honolulu’s drinking water. Around 93,000 people total are served by the Navy’s water system, AP reported.
Military housing residents began complaining of a fuel or chemical smell coming from their water on Nov. 28, Rear Adm. Timothy Kott, commander of Navy Region Hawaii, said during a town hall with military families last week. While the Navy’s initial testing last week did not reveal the source of the odor, the Hawaii Department of Health said on Dec. 1 that their initial testing did find “petroleum product” in water samples taken from Red Hill Elementary School, which is served by the Navy’s water system.
Since then, the Hawaii Department of Health has received more than 500 complaints of fuel-like odors, and the Navy has paused all operations at the Red Hill fuel storage facility. But questions have remained about how long the Navy has known about potential issues with the Red Hill well, where traces of petroleum were found.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported on Monday that the Navy had test results dating back to July “showing petroleum contamination in the Red Hill shaft,” though Navy officials said on Tuesday that those test results were not from the same well that drinking water is being drawn from. Rear Adm. Blake Converse, the deputy commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet said in a press conference on Tuesday that in two instances during the summer, there were “elevated hydrocarbon” levels found in monitoring wells around the Red Hill shaft. The Navy reported it to the Department of Health, Converse said, and the hydrocarbon levels “decreased back to non-detectable levels.”
Converse said the public was not informed of the elevated hydrocarbon levels because it was not in the aquifer where water used on base is being pumped.
“So no consumption?” a reporter asked.
“Not based on the monitoring that we conducted at that time,” Converse responded.
Navy families have voiced their anger and concerns to leadership at various town hall meetings over the last two weeks, and on social media. One resident last week said there was “a bunch of gray stuff coming out of every single faucet” in her home. Another pushed leaders on why “nobody’s saying ‘We realize there is something in your water.’”
“Our water is clearly tainted,” the man said.
That frustration was on display during Monday’s town hall when Bauer gave impassioned remarks about what she and her family have been going through. Bauer and her husband, along with their infant son and “beloved” dog, moved into their Navy housing in March this year, she said.
“My husband has gladly and readily served this country,” she said. “And I have stood by his side and stood up for this community on a number of occasions … I have wrongly assumed that this leadership would be doing the same for us.”
As the six Navy officials at the front of the room sat silently, Bauer went on to tell them that her 13-month old son has been bathed in and drank from the water in the faucet, and has “been throwing up for days on end.” She asked why they “weren’t my wingman” as she and her husband began having “mysterious symptoms such as sore throats, burning in my stomach, profuse, unusual sweating, headaches unable to be mitigated, requiring multiple ER visits for additional medication, vomiting, diarrhea, skin irritation.”
“I’m here to ask why you did not protect us when the most catastrophic release scenario happened in excess … I’m here to ask why you weren’t there protecting my family when we made the heartbreaking choice to put my beloved dog down after a mysterious illness and thousands of dollars tried to discover why suddenly after being healthy she was having coughing, choking, vomiting, difficulty breathing, loss of appetite, depression, general weakness, intermittent dry and oily feces, shivering, head tremors, lack of coordination, and dehydration,” Bauer said, her voice breaking. “Because suddenly it now makes sense why she would go days without drinking water and then vomit after drinking some. I dare say that you murdered my dog, but causation is not correlation, so I am left to speculate.”
When she finished speaking, the other residents sitting around her began to clap. Del Toro addressed her first, thanking her and telling her that “my heart goes out to you,” pledging that they would “address all the issues” she brought up, and at one point placing blame on officials who have come before him.
“I’ve been the Secretary of the Navy for 16 weeks,” he said. “I’ve just come to understand this situation with Red Hill. All I can say is on behalf of our country, I’m very sorry that perhaps some of these challenges haven’t been faced in the past.”
There have been a litany of issues with the fuel storage at Red Hill — the most recent being just last month, when around 14,000 gallons of fuel and water “leaked from a pipe for the facility’s fire suppression system,” according to Hawaii News Now. Rear Adm. Kott said last week that the fuel was recovered “immediately” and there was “no indication that it made it into the well or the drinking water.”
An attorney for the Sierra Club, a national environmental organization, told Hawaii News Now earlier this year that they are “very concerned” because of how old the tanks at the Red Hill facility are. “They’re leaky and they sit above the sole source aquifer for the island,” David Frankel said.
Since the latest leak, environmental groups are calling for the facility to be shut down altogether.
“We’re done waiting for the local Navy command to acknowledge the truth, which is that they cannot guarantee our safety,” Wayne Tanaka, the director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, told Hawaii Public Radio. “There have been too many leaks, too many lies exposed by whistleblowers. There’s no way we can trust assurances anymore that there’s nothing to worry about.”
In a press release on Wednesday, Del Toro said the “safety, health and well-being of our service members, civilians, contractors, their families and our communities here in Oahu is of the utmost importance to me.”
“Our people will always be our first priority. Their safety is paramount,” he said. “We are aiming for a new normal: One where this never happens again.”
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