Navy Gives Drinking Water Quality Oversight for all US Bases to One Command After Red Hill Spill in Hawaii

by Braxton Taylor

Navy Installations Command is now responsible for ensuring that all Navy bases in the U.S. and its territories provide quality water to personnel and families who work and live on station.

Vice Adm. Christopher Scott Gray, commander for Navy installations, issued a policy earlier this month outlining a new management structure for operation and maintenance of Navy drinking water systems to ensure oversight and responsibility in 10 regions.

The move follows a massive spill in 2021 of jet fuel into the Navy’s water system at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii that affected 93,000 residents on the installation and in nearby military housing communities.

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Previously, each Navy command had been responsible for managing its individual systems, according to a press release issued by the service on Tuesday.

“In order to ensure consistent management, policy and oversight across the Navy, these functions and responsibilities were placed under [Commander, Navy Installations Command],” the release states.

The contamination in Hawaii triggered a cleanup effort and closure of the Red Hill bulk fuel storage facility responsible for the discharge. More than 2,000 residents, including active-duty personnel and military family members, have sued the Navy over health issues they say they suffered as a result of the service’s negligence.

Coleen San Nicolas-Perez, deputy public affairs officer for Navy Installations Command, told Military.com on Wednesday that the lessons from the Red Hill mishap, as well as internal assessments at other installations, played roles in developing the new policy.

“We determined that we needed to incorporate those lessons learned and recommendations into our overall drinking water program operations across the Navy shore enterprise,” San Nicolas-Perez wrote in an email. “We feel these improvements will increase consistency with drinking water management and operations at all our installations.”

According to the policy, the new initiative aims to improve oversight and enhance the Navy’s ability to operate and maintain its water systems, as well as meet drinking water standards.

Drinking water committees, composed of public works, environmental, medical and communications personnel, will be established at each installation, region and headquarters level to oversee water quality management and concerns.

“We must consistently validate that those who rely on the Navy water systems, whether they are on our bases or live in nearby communities, have access to safe drinking water,” Gray said in a statement. “This policy identifies the responsibilities and roles of Navy commands and positions of authority while holding them accountable to deliver quality drinking water that meets standards.”

Last month, the Navy activated what it called a “swarm team” of experts from the service and the Hawaii Department of Health to determine the root cause of continued low-level findings of petroleum hydrocarbons in the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system, citing concerns from the community.

The service maintains that the drinking water system at the installation meets federal and state standards, and it has remained within those safe drinking water guidelines since March 2022.

Nevertheless, given ongoing concerns in the community, the Navy is collecting additional water samples from residences and the water sources.

“When it comes to the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam drinking water concerns, the Navy is taking it seriously with an all-hands on deck approach,” San Nicolas-Perez said.

Gray added that service members, families and all who live in Hawaii have the Navy’s “full attention.”

“As the team in Hawaii continues to make great strides, my team is ready to give whatever support is needed to safely close the Red Hill facility and ensure the safety of the water, the land, and the community,” Gray said in a statement provided to Military.com.

The Navy operates numerous water systems and maintains that all in the U.S. meet or exceed U.S. and Defense Department requirements.

And while the service doesn’t control water supplies at overseas installations, officials said the water at those bases also must meet U.S. and DoD requirements, and if it doesn’t, the Navy supplies bottled water to those affected.

“Across the Navy shore enterprise, whether in Hawaii, in the mainland, or overseas, we have a standardized framework for overseeing, evaluating, and maintaining our drinking water systems,” San Nicolas-Perez said.

The new policy largely standardizes oversight, operations and maintenance of the water systems at all Navy facilities. It requires installation committees to conduct self-assessments of their drinking water systems annually, and those considered to be high risk may be required to undergo sanitary surveys at the Navy Installations Command level.

The committees also will be required to communicate frequently with the Navy; consumers; and other affected federal, state and local entities on water quality and compliance as needed.

Personnel at the installation, regional and headquarters levels also will be required to undergo training on drinking water systems.

“The commanders are responsible for the quality assurance and compliance of the Navy drinking water systems,” Navy Installations Command Environmental Director Brock Durig said in a statement.

“They take a hands-on approach when it comes to continual program and water system

oversight to address any water quality concerns and take the appropriate actions to ensure Navy drinking water systems are meeting federal and state standards,” Durig added.

The new initiative applies only to U.S. and territorial installations and not to Navy ships, where incidents and complaints of contaminated water have existed for years. A December 1975 Government Accountability Office report detailed how common dumping fuel into the ocean was for Navy vessels. The report was generated after the carrier USS Independence dumped 8,900 gallons of aviation gasoline off the coast of South Carolina.

More recently, in 2022, the Navy had two high-profile water contamination events — one aboard the USS Nimitz, which involved jet fuel getting into the water supply, and one on the carrier Abraham Lincoln, whose water supply was contaminated by the bacteria E. coli.

A report last year by Military.com on the amphibious assault ship Boxer, which dumped diesel fuel into the ocean in 2016 and exposed the crew to the contaminant, led members of the House to call for more accountability on the incident.

The Department of the Navy and the Marine Corps were responsible for what is thought to be one of the largest cases of drinking water contamination in the U.S. at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where an estimated 1 million were exposed to industrial solvents, benzene and other cancer-causing agents in the base’s drinking water supply from the early 1950s through 1987.

Related: Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Tied to a Range of Cancers, CDC Study Says

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