The contamination of water on military bases is not new. And that’s a problem
December 3, 2021
Memories of Dee Ann Koanui of the three years she spent as a child at Marine Corps Lejeune Base Camp in North Carolina are a glorious stream of outdoor adventure.
She and her four siblings spent their days climbing trees and watching alligators from a nearby river, only returning to their four-bedroom house at the end of a cul-de-sac when night fell. and that the streetlights have come on.
But Koanui’s rosy memories were cooled when years later, in her thirties, she learned that Camp Lejeune had been the site of contaminated drinking water for decades in part because of the carcinogenic chemicals used for health services. dry cleaning.
So far, Koanui does not personally know anyone who has fallen ill in Lejeune, although she wonders if her exposure to toxic chemicals has weakened her immune system and that of her siblings. But the 55-year-old Kapolei resident is angry this week because she feels like history is repeating itself.
On Monday, the state asked families in Pearl Harbor to stop drinking or using tap water. Residents reported the smell of fuel, and some who drank the water reported feeling sick. A University of Hawaii lab confirmed on Wednesday that a water sample from Red Hill Elementary School contained petroleum.
The Navy confirmed on Thursday that the water at its Red Hill well had been contaminated with petroleum products based on testing samples sent to a mainland laboratory earlier this week. Rear Admiral Blake Converse, deputy commander of the US Pacific Fleet, did not provide further details on where the oil came from or how much was involved.
“Now that the source has been identified and isolated, we are developing a plan to restore the drinking water system to EPA standards, identify how this contaminant entered the well, and repair the well,” Converse said during ‘a FaceBook Live address.
Much is still unknown. But what is clear is that this is far from the first time the military has been responsible for water pollution in the United States.
The extent and causes of the pollution have varied, but the problem has affected communities from Guam to North Carolina, with mixed responses from federal officials.
A 2017 Government Accountability Office study criticized the Defense Department for its poor data on drinking water violations and found that the military had closed wells at 11 facilities due to high levels of chemicals found in the fire-fighting foam.
Range of disasters
Water pollution from military bases does not always affect the water people actively drink. In New Mexico, the Air Force recognized in 1999 that kerosene had contaminated groundwater beneath Kirtland Air Force Base and surrounding neighborhoods.
The 24 million gallon leak at a jet fuel loading facility was estimated to be twice the size of the Enron Valdez oil spill.
No drinking water was contaminated by the leak, according to the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utilities Authority. But the agency specifies that the site is a priority because the contamination is close to the drinking water supply wells.
The New Mexico Center for Environmental Law has filed a lawsuit for a faster cleanup, fearing the drinking water could be contaminated.
At Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, the Environmental Protection Agency has determined that the groundwater is contaminated between the island’s aquifer and above the saltwater area. This is a concern as the northern aquifer provides at least 70% of the island’s water supply.
But the EPA says the lack of drinking water wells near the toxic area prevents residents from drinking polluted water. The Pacific Daily News reported that the EPA and Air Force are monitoring rather than cleaning the plume due to the risk of salt water entering the aquifer.
Two years ago, the Guam Environmental Protection Agency fined Anderson Air Force Base for a separate issue: the use of pool cleaning chemicals to disinfect drinking water. from the base.
Even when the water residents actively drink is contaminated, there is sometimes no clear link between this and health issues. In Wisconsin, families discovered in 1990 that chemicals from the Badger Army munitions plant had entered their wells.
Studies have shown that the community does not have disproportionate cancer rates, Wisconsin Watch reported, but residents remained concerned in part because chemicals like chloroform that are likely carcinogenic had been detected at high levels in the water.
The Air Force has spent years cleaning up contamination from groundwater at Kelly Air Force Base in Texas after leaks, spills and approved discharges led to a 30-foot-deep plume of contaminants that was detected for the first time in 1988.
The Air Force said it spent $ 5 million to fund 10-year studies, but scans found no links between the contamination and individual health problems.
Money for sick families
Camp Lejeune, a sprawling base that is home to tens of thousands of Marines and their families on the North Carolina coast, has suffered decades of water contamination from carcinogenic dry cleaning solvents and leaking tanks from fuel.
The Department of Veterans Affairs admitted there was a link between exposure to contaminants in drinking water and several medical conditions, including leukemia and other types of cancer and female infertility.
The VA agreed to provide health care benefits to veterans who served at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 cumulative days from August 1953 to December 1987. In 2017, the Obama administration agreed to provide health care benefits. disability totaling over $ 2 billion to eligible veterans who had been exposed.
Kyle Kajihiro, environmental activist and board member of community group Hawaii Peace and Justice, hopes Hawaii’s water crisis doesn’t get to this point and the Navy will take it as a wake-up call .
âI think we are witnessing a disaster that is unfolding in real time,â he said. “To me, this is a glimpse of a much bigger disaster that could occur if the Red Hill tanks were to have a catastrophic leak.”
“It’s kind of a wake-up call in the sense that we really have an urgent responsibility to remove the fuel from where it is above our aquifers,” he added.
Kajihiro, who is also a senior lecturer at the University of Hawaii, has studied environmental disasters at U.S. military bases and says there is a familiar pattern of denial and reassurance. It can take years for the military to accept their responsibilities.
“Some details might change, but a similar story plays out time and time again at these sites where the environment and communities are sacrificed by the military in the pursuit of its mission,” he said.
Two decades ago, Kajihiro said he joined with other environmental activists in pushing for a bill in Congress that would have allowed people to sue the military for environmental damage. But the measure died in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, he said.
Kajihiro was disappointed with what he sees as a lack of proactivity on the part of Hawaii’s leaders on this issue, but said he was satisfied with a bill introduced by Honolulu city council on Thursday that would oblige operators of underground storage tanks to obtain authorization from the city.
âSome of us have been saying this for a long time and it feels like we are screaming in nature,â he said. “Unfortunately, it has to happen to something like this before there is any action.”
Civil Beat reporter Christina Jedra contributed reporting for this story.
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