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Contaminated water at Pearl Harbor base in Hawaii forces hundreds to live in hotels

The message was simple. “Don’t turn this into Flint,” the protester’s sign read, as a crowd of environmentalists gathered outside of the Prince Kuhio Federal Building in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Friday.

It’s the latest sign of an escalating water crisis on the island of Oahu affecting scores of military families in recent days.

Hundreds of military service members and their families are staying in hotels and other temporary housing, following confirmation that petroleum products had contaminated the water system relied on by thousands of people living near the sprawling Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, endangering the largest source of drinking water on the island.

Last week, the Hawaii Department of Health said a sample of tap water connected to the naval base tested positive for petroleum products, and the Navy’s own tests identified petroleum in their Red Hill well, near a massive aquifer that serves large portions of Honolulu.

Families across at least 10 different military housing communities on the island have reported contaminated water, some of which smelled of chemicals and had a visible sheen.

“It was just getting worse every day,” Cheri Burness, whose husband is in the Navy, told the Associated Press of the water, which caused her and her daughter nausea and stomach pain.

They’ve switched to $120-a-month private water delivery for the time being.

Others are relying on the military for daily deliveries of fresh water, as well as temporary laundry and shower facilities.

Officials have cut off contaminated wells from the general system, and plan to flush clean water through the water distribution network around the base in the hopes of clearing out the contaminants, before testing to make sure what remains meets Environmental Protection Agency safe drinking standards.

The Army Material Command’s director of operations has also arrived in Oahu to assist in getting the system back online.

“They bring some unique expertise,” Rear Admiral Blake Converse, deputy commander of the US Pacific Fleet, said in a digital town hall on Saturday. “Specifically, they brought the commander of their Army Environmental Command down who has unique experience in diagnosing and isolating and then recovering water systems with these kinds of complex problems we’re seeing today.”

If these solutions aren’t effective, officials have suggested they could set up a purification system to clear out any further contamination.

Problems began in a facility that has long been a target of criticism from environmentalists, the Red Hill Fuel Storage Facility.

On 22 November, the Navy announced that a mixture of water and fuel had leaked into a fire suppression system drain line at a large WWII-era fuel storage facility inland from the massive base.

So far, it has removed at least 14,000 gallons (53,000 litres) from the facility, and officials said the leak hadn’t spread into a large nearby aquifer or the surrounding environment.

It’s not the first time the facility, home to 20 underground fuel tanks, has been under scrutiny for its environmental practices.

In 2014, 27,000 gallons (102 kilolitres) of jet fuel leaked at Red Hill, where fuel tanks sit just feet above an aquifer that provides a quarter of Honolulu’s water. The leak led to an agreement between the Navy, the EPA, and the state’s department of health to monitor environmental conditions.

In October, Honolulu Civil Beat reported that the Navy had withheld information about a leak into Pearl Harbor itself amid an ongoing permitting review, prompting harsh criticism from the state’s US congressional delegation.

“The Navy’s decision not to publicly acknowledge the [Pearl Harbor] fuel leak and explain what it is doing to prevent future leaks is inconsistent with the commitment past secretaries of the Navy have made to the people of Hawaii to remain transparent on all matters that could affect our environmental resources,” the representatives wrote. “The people of Hawaii deserve better from the Navy.”

The Navy has said it works closely with state and federal agencies to share information about health and environmental conditions at its Pearl Harbor facilities.

“You know we’ve gone through all the technical documents, we’ve heard all the Navy’s assurances, they simply cannot keep us safe, they cannot guarantee our safety and that’s the bottom line,” Wayne Chung Tanaka of the Sierra Club told KITV.

The Sierra Club has asked military officials to decommission the fuel storage facility, which the environmental advocacy group argues presents a “clear and unavoidable risk” to key water sources.

The military has defended the facility as safe and necessary for national security.

Studies have shown the US military is a massive polluter and emitter of greenhouse gasses, burning more carbon than most medium-sized countries and leaving devastating environmental pollution near bases and weapons testing sites.

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