The Bauer family is just one of hundreds begging for answers from military leadership in Hawaii after the Navy reported on November 22 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 on the island of Oahu.
At a public town hall meeting held Sunday at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam with Navy leadership, including Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, Lauren Bauer addressed the crowd as a nursing mother to a 13-month-old.
The Navy confirmed to TODAY that Sec. Del Toro already had plans to be in town for the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, but dedicated the front half of his trip to the ongoing water crisis.
The meeting was streamed as a Facebook Live and saved to the platform after it ended by Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Bauer's emotional speech, which began one hour and 43 minutes into the four-hour meeting, has since garnered intense social media attention as investigations continue on the cause of the incident.
In Bauer's opening statement she thanked leaders for coming together to hear from community members, and asked Del Toro directly on guidance for breastfeeding mothers — to which he vowed to ask the Surgeon General — before detailing her family's ongoing health issues.
"I'm here to ask why the Hawaii Board of Health and Water had difficulty obtaining results for July, August, and September. Results which are unsurprisingly, seemingly incriminating," Bauer said, referring to reports from local news outlet Honolulu Star-Advertiser that water sampling indicated contamination months ago.
She continued, "I'm here to ask why you did not protect us (when) the most catastrophic real life scenario happened in excess."
Bauer referenced EPA-published data that detailed the consequences of exposure to xylenes, naphthalene and TPH-g that have been found in the water that services nearly 100,000 military families on the island of Oahu.
"Daily ingestion of water indicates central nervous system damage, liver, kidney, lung, heart damage, digestive tract issues, drowsiness, dizziness and other damage to vital organs," Bauer said. "Why have you told us that the water was safe to drink, to bathe in, while you really waited for results that you already had?"
"I’m here to ask why you weren’t a wingman to protect my 13-month-old son when I was bathing him and when I was giving him a sippy cup full of water from my faucet when he has been throwing up for days on end.
"I'm here to ask why do you weren't my wingman as my husband and I have had the serious symptoms, such as sore throat, burning in my stomach, unusual sweating, headaches unable to be mitigated, requiring multiple ER visits or additional medications, vomiting, diarrhea, skin irritation..."
Bauer then detailed the loss of the family's 9-year-old dog, Delilah.
"I'm here to ask why you weren't there protecting my family when we make the heartbreaking choice to put my beloved dog down after a mysterious illness, thousands of dollars trying to discover why, suddenly, after being healthy, she was having coughing, choking difficulty breathing, loss of appetite, depression, general weakness, intermittent dry and oily feces, shivering, tremors, lack of coordination and dehydration, because suddenly, it now makes sense why she would seemingly go days without drinking water and then vomit after drinking," Bauer said through tears. "I dare say that you murdered my dog, but causation is not correlation, so I am left to speculate.
Bauer ended her testimony with a final ask for transparency.
"At this point, I know your team has been hot for a few days and whatever you knew before this incident became widely publicized and picked up internationally by the media, is between you and your maker," she said. "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."
Sec. Del Toro responded to Bauer at the meeting.
"Thank you, ma'm. My heart goes out to you. To tell you anything different would be to lie to you," he said from the podium. "I've been Secretary of the Navy for sixteen weeks. 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. I'm here today. What I can tell you, is that as long as I'm Secretary of the Navy, I pledge to you that we will address all the issues that you just mentioned, with sincerity, transparency, the complete dedication to try to fix this problem. That's the only approach I can make to you. I wish it were much much more but I thank you."
At a press conference Monday, Rear Admiral Blake Converse, Deputy Commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet who is leading the investigation, addressed concerns that residents have had long standing exposure to contaminated water.
"There were indications that there were total hydrocarbons in the ground water and monitoring wells in the vicinity of the Red Hill shaft. We have a series of monitor wells on the Red Hill complex that allows us early detections of hydrocarbons," Converse said.
Converse stated when hydrocarbons are detected, the military then makes decisions on what the risk is to the water in the aquifer.
"We did detect elevated hydrocarbons for two weeks at one point and then another two weeks in the June, July, August time frame," he said.
Converse said the military notified the Hawaii Department of Health during both instances. "(We) increased monitoring in wells at their direction," he said. "In both of those cases over time, those hydrocarbon levels decreased to non-detectable levels."
Converse stated the monitoring wells are not the same as the well from which potable water is drawn.
TODAY reached out to the U.S. Navy for further response Tuesday.
"At this point in our ongoing evaluation we are unable to identify causation to members’ long-term conditions to chronic exposure to water from the Navy’s distribution system," a spokesperson for U.S. Pacific Fleet said. "We are seeing time-limited symptoms associated to exposure to contaminated water in defined areas. These symptoms are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, and skin rashes. We urge members to continue to monitor their symptoms and seek medical support as needed."
Bauer told TODAY Parents that sharing her family's story in a public forum was important, and she did not know in advance Del Toro would be in attendance.
"Leaders at the top often don't hear what we have to say," Bauer said. "It was a forum where they could hear from everybody, which is not their average day."
Bauer is grateful for the opportunity she had to share her family's story.
"I had the opportunity to say my peace," she told TODAY. "At the end of the day they're people and they need to hear what they haven't heard."
The Bauers are far from an isolated case.
Kate Needham, the director of operations of Armed Forces Housing Advocates, a non-profit that advocates on behalf of military families in privatized housing, told TODAY Parents the organization began getting reports from families in military housing on Monday, Nov. 29.
"As an organization we've had approximately 700 cases come in," Needham, who flew to Hawaii Monday to talk with military families in person, said. "We have been going house to house. Families have told us (about) the vomiting, the diarrhea, the rashes, the sick animals."
Needham emphasized the severity for some families, and added she experienced dizziness and a migraine after spending time in one home.
"I've always believed our families, but this is why I came here. Based on the stories they are telling me, this has been going on a lot longer than we realized, she told TODAY. "Multiple families have talked about seizures, and women with menstrual issues, and something that is extremely traumatizing is children with chemical burns on their genitals."
In an emailed statement to TODAY on Dec. 2, Converse 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."
Late Sunday, Hawaii Governor David Ige called on the Navy to immediately shut down operations at Red Hill just one week after families began reporting health issues stemming from a "fuel odor" in their water.
“Test results confirming contamination of drinking water at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam show that the Navy is not effectively operating the World War II-era facility and protecting the health and safety of the people of Hawai‘i,” Ige said in a joint statement alongside Hawaii Senators Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and Representatives Ed Case and Kai Kahele.