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Hawaii families devastated by impacts of Navy’s fuel-contaminated water

▶ Watch Video: U.S. Navy investigating Hawaii fuel leak linked to contaminated tap water

For Hawaii residents who rely on the Navy’s water system, there’s “good” and “bad” water, according to one resident. The good water — or boiled and bottled water — is what Anthony Willbanks says his wife uses to fill an inflatable pool so she can hand wash laundry with their children. It’s the type his family uses to bathe and wash dishes with.

“It’s kind of like going back to the old days,” Willbanks says.

The island’s “bad” water is what comes out of his home’s faucet — water he says reeks of fuel. It’s the same water state officials are urging a potential 93,000 residents not to use since petroleum products were identified within one of the state’s wells.

Residents have complained about negative effects on their health, and some could be displaced from their homes for weeks.

On November 28, the Navy shut off its water system after families said their tap water smelled like fuel. Tests later identified petroleum products in the water, and health officials urged residents against using it for daily tasks. The Navy then suspended operations at its local fuel storage farm, which has a history of leaking.

The military has since provided residents with water and has helped relocate some families. On December 16, tests no longer showed contamination within the water system, the Navy said, but an investigation is still ongoing.

CBS News spoke with families who depend on the Navy’s water about how their lives have been changed by the ongoing water crisis.

“The psychological damage is just unbearable.” – Frances Paulino

Frances Paulino

Frances Paulino said the air in her backyard “literally smelled like somebody poured kerosene all over” on November 20. 

“The fumes in the air were just very unbearable,” said Paulino, who serves as a board member for the nonprofit organization Armed Forces Housing Advocates. 

On November 21, the Navy insisted there were “no signs or indication of any releases to the environment” and said the drinking water was safe for residents to consume. The Navy later clarified that it had misinterpreted its initial water quality tests.

Paulino said the Navy’s updated announcement induced “next-level anxiety.” 

“I’m trying to tell everybody back then at the top of my lungs that something was wrong, to have services activated,” she said. “The pressure in those first few days is something that I wish nobody has to experience.” 

“You just carry this guilt of ‘have I been poisoning my children?’ Now you’re having to run around and make sure they don’t touch water. You’ve having to deal with the pressure of ‘what do I need to do to make sure that they’re protected while we’re in this house until we can get out?'”

Her family has since been relocated to a hotel, but she says the “anxiety and psychological damage is still there” and that it is “just unbearable.”

“You feel like every piece of water you touch now is contaminated regardless of where you are because the damage has already been done,” she said. “It just puts us in a position where we don’t feel like we can ever trust having that safe space in our homes anymore. That’s been robbed of us. That feeling of security and serenity that you feel when you walk through the front door is totally obliterated for us.”

On top of the water crisis, Hawaii also saw catastrophic flooding during a storm earlier this month. The weather system brought multiple inches of rain, blizzard conditions to some of the state’s highest peaks, a state of emergency declaration for all islands and a loss of power for many homes.

“It just felt like one hit after the other,” Paulino said. “The pressure of what we’re experiencing now and what we’re going through is just incomprehensible unless you’re walking in our shoes.”

She said her family is in a “fight or flight mode” as she and her husband try to establish some sense of routine for their children in the weeks without drinkable water.

“Our whole worlds have been turned upside down and we’re trying to navigate what the best thing to do is for our families as well as trying to deal with the emotional trauma,” she said.

“We’re stuck on an island that can’t provide care.” – Nastasia Freeman

Nastasia Freeman

Nastasia Freeman, a licensed psychologist who specializes in anxiety and trauma treatment, says she’s felt isolated when it comes to her family’s health since drinking the Navy’s water. 

She says her children have experienced symptoms related to fuel-ingestion in recent months like nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. But her 11-year-old son has seen some of the worst of it and has been in and out of the emergency room and has missed nearly a month of school for stomach pain.

“He was lethargic,” she said. “I mean, he was laying there. He just looked out of it.” 

Her son began to recover after taking a prescription stomach medicine and only consuming bottled water. But soon after the 11-year-old began regularly ingesting water from her home’s tap, she said, “the illness picked back up again.”

By Thanksgiving, she said her family began to smell and taste fuel in her home’s water. That’s when she and her husband began to report it to various state and local agencies.

When the Navy finally formally addressed its water’s smell, Freeman said she became emotional. 

“I cried to my husband,” she said. “As a parent, you feel disappointment in yourself because you should have been able to see into the future and you should have known something was wrong, but you trust in the system. So to be honest, it was just extreme stress and anger.”

Freeman said her young children began taking “freezing cold sponge baths” and were brushing their teeth with bottled water. However, the family has since been relocated to a hotel, while frequently visiting their home.

“[The hotel is] not too far but when you’re going back and forth and then your kids are not in that school zone, it can be trying,” she said. “We go back and forth for showers and honestly just to get out of the environment because when you’re seeing all the water trucks all the time come through the neighborhood, it’s heavy. So we take the kids to the hotel.” 

“It’s not just about getting clean water and showering. It’s about protecting their mental health and giving us all a break from what our reality is right now.” 

She says recent flooding and rising gas prices have complicated those efforts.

“We were stuck. We weren’t able to get to the hotel or to freshwater so we were just using what we had here at home,” she said. “We’re stuck on an island that can’t provide care.”

“It’s maddening.” – Anthony Willbanks 

Anthony Willbanks

Anthony Willbanks, an active service member in the U.S. Army, recalls receiving texts from his wife while he was deployed in July. She told him their three young children were “getting a little sick” and within months, there was community chatter about problems with the neighborhood’s water. 

“You kind of don’t notice whenever you’re living in that environment, but it got real serious, real bad,” he said. 

Soon, his wife began texting photos of their children helping to clean dishes and do laundry outside.  

“Our only good water source to be able to drink, she was also having to use for laundry and dishes because it didn’t only affect our drinking water,” he said. “They don’t understand that.”

When his deployment ended, Willbanks returned to his home, which he said reeked of gasoline. “The fumes in our house just about knocks us down,” Willbanks said. “I’ve never had health issues, but my chest starts to hurt.”

Now, Willbanks and his wife said they’re looking to get their first son, who has a pre-existing heart condition, examined. 

“By drinking bad water, this could have sped up his process to where he has to get surgery sooner, and we’re not sure,” he said. “We have to get him checked out again to make sure that it didn’t do any more damage than what’s already done.”

His family has since been relocated to a hotel but Willbanks said he hopes to move his family to another part of the state long-term. . But first, he says he’ll have to calculate costs to replace appliances damaged by the contaminated water, which includes a $3,000 refrigerator and a brand new washing machine.

“Every single dish is plastic and petroleum just sticks to it,” he said. “It’s really hard to clean it and get it to where you can safely eat from it. Now, my wife says we’re going to have to get rid of all of our dishes, we’re going to get rid of our washing machines, we’ve got to get rid of our refrigerator.”

But through it all, Willbanks says the sense of community between those experiencing similar issues has grown stronger. Many families have created group chats where they regularly check in on each other and share information. “They’ve been tremendous help,” he said. 

“They poisoned us.” – Jamie Williams

Jamie Williams

Caught between finals for law school, the upcoming holidays, Hawaii’s weather and a lack of clean drinking water, Jamie Williams says she’s facing “really tough choices.”

“It’s kind of a never-ending cycle of thinking about how much water do we need and where it’s going to come from and ‘oh I need to shower today,'” Williams said. “My husband and I went this morning and hauled about 10 gallons of water home and you have to boil it to wash the dishes.”

For months, the law student said she has experienced an array of fuel-ingestion symptoms while living alone as her husband was deployed. 

“I noticed I was having memory problems and really severe memory problems to the point where it was almost like blacking out,” she said. “It’s just a black hole which was absolutely objectively terrifying.”

She said the mental cognitive issues have affected her studies and were coupled with disruptions to her menstrual cycle as well. When neighbors shared similar experiences, she began to worry. 

“A lot of us were Googling early Alzheimers,” she said. “Meanwhile, we’re in our 30s.”

On the morning of November 29, Williams says the water she used to make her coffee “smelled like fuel.” She emailed the Environmental Protection Agency that afternoon, she said, and stopped using her home’s water and stopped giving it to her pets.

“We made it a few days in the house, but I was having issues. I’m in the middle of finals right now,” Williams said. “I would come home to study and the fumes from not even running the water, just the taps in the toilet because the gas is precipitating out of the water, was so overwhelming in my house. I would make it like 40 minutes and then have a headache and be nauseous.”

She and her husband bagged off all of their home’s faucets and toilets, kept toilet bowl lids down, ran the bathroom fans and made sure to keep doors shut, she said. “But we’re still not able to stay or sleep in the home.”

When the Navy released its water quality finding, she began putting the pieces together. She recalled seeing gas trucks in her neighborhood before the announcement and remembered the previous health experiences of her neighbors. 

“At that point, things shifted in my head,” she said. “They poisoned us. They really did. They had knowledge of this. This is just willful ignorance to me.”

The situation, she said, has made her rethink living in Hawaii altogether, but that comes with a major decision.

“If I leave Hawaii in this timeframe in January and I don’t complete another semester of law school, I have to drop out. I’m not eligible for transfer,” she said. “If I wanted to go to a different school, I would have to completely reapply and being quite honest, I’m 36 years old. That’s not happening. So it’s like stay here or give up your dream.”

“It’s not really a great set of choices.” 



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