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Military families without clean water, sick after petroleum detected in water near Pearl Harbor

"I'm still in shock this is happening," one mother told TODAY.
Hawaii Water Contaminated
Courtesy Heather Fisher and Peggy Peterson
/ Source: TODAY

U.S. Navy spouse Megan Kilpatrick woke up in her home on the Hawaiian island of Oahu at 2 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving violently ill.

"I first attributed it to food poisoning. I was in bed all day, I had severe stomach pains," Kilpatrick told TODAY. "On Saturday, our friend had texted us and said, 'Have you smelled your water? Does your water smell bad?'"

Kilpatrick said initially, the water at their home in Radford Terrace, a housing community operated by the military, smelled fine.

"When you turn it on for a second, you can’t really smell it," Kilpatrick said, adding that she began running the faucet for a longer period of time and immediately smelled what she thought was gasoline.

On Sunday, the mom of two began experiencing chest pains and labored breathing.

"I thought, 'Wow what is going on?," she said. "(And then) it kind of came out that there was oil in the water."

On Nov. 22, the Navy reported that 14,000 gallons of a fuel-water mixture had spilled from an ongoing leak in a drain line at the Red Hill fuel storage facility in Pearl Harbor. Earlier this year, local news outlet Hawaii News Now reported that Hawaii's Department of Public Health fined the Navy $325,000 for alleged pipeline safety violations at Red Hill. The system serves approximately 93,000 people.

Resident Peggy Peterson began seeing a film in her water Sunday.

"I started noticing people mention it on Facebook so I had my teenager smell the water," Peterson told TODAY. "About 5 p.m., I went and filled up a mug and as soon as I put it to my nose, the smell smacked you in the face."

Peterson took a photo of tap water in a mug that appears to have a sheen.

Peggy Peterson, who lives in military housing in Hawaii, said she began noticing a film on her tap water Sunday.Courtesy Peggy Peterson

Peterson said the smell seemed to "trickle down" through her neighborhood.

"Some people were smelling it, some people weren't," the mom of three said. "I snapped the picture, because everyone was getting conflicting information. For me, I'm a visual person, when I could physically see it in the cup, you can see that something is wrong. Even if you can't smell it in the water, if you're seeing a film, I'm scared to drink that."

On Monday, Nov. 29, Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam Commander Captain Erik Spitzer sent a message to all military housing residents.

A message sent Monday to Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam residents indicated the water was safe.Courtesy Kait Hanson

"To Residents of JBPHH Military Housing, Our teams continue to respond to concerns and complaints of odor in water at housing in our various communities," the message stated. "We appreciate your feedback and will continue to sample, test and provide expedited results as soon as they are available. We are working closely with the Department of Health on this issue. We are fully committed to the health and safety of our base residents and workers. Our priority is to ensure there is no risk to our families, to the public, and to our drinking water.

"I can tell you at this point that there are no immediate indications that the water is not safe. My staff and I are drinking the water on base this morning, and many of my team live in housing and drink and use the water as well. We visited several communities and homes last night to get samples of water, and we talked with residents who had concerns.

"We have not recommended any schools to be closed, and we have not sent out any notifications telling people to not use the water. However, know that we are taking your concerns seriously and are working with Department of Health on testing many water samples. And we will follow up with you as soon as those results are available."

Armed Forces Housing Advocates, a non-profit that advocates on behalf of military families in privatized housing, began getting reports from families on Monday.

"When we first got wind of the situation, we immediately put out a statement to advise every resident to stop drinking and bathing in the water," director of operations Kate Needham told TODAY. "We were getting lots of people complaining about diarrhea, nausea and rashes."

Heather Fisher told TODAY her 3-year-old son, Griffin, suffered head to toe hives after bathing.Courtesy Heather Fisher

The group organized a small water drive using a $1200 budget for Hawaii families in need.

"It was important for us to do the water distribution Monday, because the (messaging) was that 'water is fine, you can drink it'," Needham said. "We just didn’t believe that. We went with our gut and got residents water right away."

On Tuesday, the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH) issued a statement advising military housing residents not to consume or use the water.

For Kilpatrick, it was too late. Both of her children were already sick. Daughter, Finley, 4 months, had a fever, and son, Hayden, 3, had a cough.

"They had been drinking the water not knowing," Kilpatrick said, adding that she took both children to the pediatrician right away and checked into a hotel. "I was terrified. With COVID and RSV going around, what if my child stops breathing?"

It was also too late for the Warford family.

"My 7-year-old broke out in a rash after bathing him before I was aware of a 'petroleum-like substance' in the water," Laura Warford said. "He also woke up with a nose bleed the next morning."

Laura Warford's 7-year-old son broke out in a rash after bathing in water near Pearl Harbor.Courtesy Laura Warford

On Wednesday, the Hawaii Department of Health said a preliminary analysis detected petroleum product in water samples from one site on the Navy Water System affected by fuel-like odors. The sample was taken Tuesday at Red Hill Elementary School.

Dr. Diana Felton, Hawaii’s state toxicologist, told the Associated Press that people who ingest petroleum may experience nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, as well as dizziness and headaches. Skin exposure may lead to itching and rashes.

The announcement was not shocking for Payton Lamb, whose 7-month-old son Keenan, fed exclusively using formula and tap water from her home, was diagnosed with bronchiolitis at a nearby hospital on November 29.

"I started to notice he was having a cough and it wasn't just a little cough," Lamb said. "It was persistent, like something was caught in his throat."

7-month-old Keenan was diagnosed with bronchiolitis, a common lung infection in young children and infants, on November 29.Courtesy Payton Lamb

The next day, Lamb was notified her son also had an infection in the right lobe of his lung, and said she feels "defeated" as a mom.

"I'm not the only parent with a sick child," Lamb said. "I would like to know what the long-term effects are."

Amanda Dunlap, who also lives in military housing on Oahu, told TODAY that her 14-year-old daughter Gwen has been experiencing skin peeling.

"It started right under her nose," Dunlap told TODAY. "It's spreading all under her eyes, on her scalp, and on her stomach and arms and all over her mouth. It's terrible. She's embarrassed."

Dunlap said it's the first — and last — time the family will live in military housing.

"I'm still in shock this is happening," she said. "We feel left in the dark (and like) the military is not stepping up and admitting or helping us more."

On Friday, the Honolulu Board of Water supply announced it would be shutting down a nearby water shaft - that serves 20% of the supply to Honolulu - as a precaution.

“We tap the same aquifer. We basically take water from the same glass of water,” BWS Chief Engineer Ernest Lau said in a live streamed press conference.

TODAY followed up with Cpt. Spitzer for comment, but the military has elevated the issue to a more senior official. In an emailed statement to TODAY, Rear Admiral Blake L. Converse, Deputy Commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, who has taken an oversight role in the investigation, said officials are working diligently to understand the problem, find the root cause and get all of the individuals and families impacted a clean, reliable water source.

"We are in close coordination with Dept of Health and the EPA and are sharing our information to solve this problem," Converse wrote. "Navy leadership on and off island is taking this issue very seriously. Our priority is keeping our service members, civilians, and their families safe and healthy."

Converse concluded that the Navy is sending updates to residents "via multiple channels as soon as new information is received to ensure our families are informed and understand next steps."

But for Peterson and other residents, the unknown is the most worrisome factor.

"We're nervous that we don't have any solid answers at the moment or an end date as to when all of this will be better or how widespread it is," she said. "Each day I keep watching up thinking we're going to be back to normal, and it still smells like gas."