These Navy divers were ‘first responders’ to a fuel spill in Hawaii
After nearly 20,000 gallons of fuel leaked into the Navy water supply in Hawaii, Navy divers were tasked with finding the problem they saw coming out of their water taps at home .
According to a report by the Honolulu Star Advertiser. But this mission was different. They were seeing the effects of the problem they were trying to solve in their own home, where some family members were seeing symptoms of exposure.
“I had never experienced anything like this before where my family especially my wife was so sick and then I was tasked to go and respond to the cleanup efforts of the thing that is making my wife sick and my family sick – then made me sick, by the way,” said senior chief diver Brian Simic, who has since retired. “You see exactly where your water is coming from. You know that the faucet you turn on in your house comes from this water that I clean…it makes the situation you live in very real.
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The fuel leak in November was the culmination of a number of missteps and failures by Navy officials over the months, according to a Navy investigation released last month. The problems started months before in May, when another fuel spill of nearly 20,000 gallons occurred which authorities failed to respond to properly. Those thousands of gallons are what ultimately leaked into the water supply in November.
Divers with MDSU1 – which is the “first dive and salvage force– were tasked with finding the source of the contamination. To do this, they had to get dressed and swim in the water in a “zero pitch black tunnel”. Even after installing pumps “designed for decontamination and removal of water and other liquids,” Wilkins said they continued to work in the well “for several months.”
The Navy investigation described how fuel fumes were so bad in the area of the leak that one man had to wash “his eyes with water, as they were burning”. Indeed, as the Star-Advertiser reports, fumes from the leak combined with poor ventilation inside the pump room where the well is accessed took their toll on those working on the problem.
Navy chief diver Melissa Nguyen, who has more than 15 years of experience, told the Star-Advertiser that the dive and salvage unit had to split their 12-hour shifts into two because it was becoming unbearable. Simic said his eyes started to dry out and he noticed he was short of breath. Lt Cmdr. MDSU1 Rescue Officer Chris Wilkins said the fumes were “starting to get in…even inside the helmet.”
“So there was still a risk that they would walk out there with all the protective gear,” Wilkins told the Star-Advertiser. “There are still fumes seeping in because it was quite big in the air there. The risks involved were too high to make repeated trips there. They found what they needed to find as best they could.
And it wasn’t just the fumes; there was physical evidence of contamination in the water the divers entered.
“There was a foam-like substance above the water,” Simic said, “and it spread pretty much everywhere in the area that your eyeball could see.”
Military families reported a range of health problems which they believe stemmed from their exposure to contaminated water in their homes, including rashes, headaches, nausea and vomiting, hair loss, diarrhea, abdominal pain and skin irritation . Simic’s wife was hospitalized around the time their mission down the well began, he told the Star-Advertiser, although doctors “refused to test her for oil exposure.”
A woman even confronted Navy leaders in December over her family’s beloved dog, who she said needed to be put down after suddenly showing signs of a ‘mystery illness’ which included symptoms of depression. , weakness, loss of appetite, dehydration, vomiting and difficulty breathing.
“Because all of a sudden it now makes sense that she would go days without drinking water and then vomit after drinking it,” the woman, Lauren Bauer, said at a Navy town hall. “I dare say you murdered my dog, but causation is not a correlation, so I’m left to speculate.”
Experts said it is difficult to trace illnesses back to exposure to contamination, particularly because more serious impacts can take years to develop. Natalie Exum, an environmental health and engineering science assistant at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Task & Purpose in January that parents are unlikely “to ever know how this has impacted their children and their immunological or developmental growth”.
“Like the kids in Flint, Michigan, will they ever know how much higher their IQ might have been had they not been exposed to lead? No, because those things take a long time to develop “said Exum.
And it’s not just the kids: Simic told the Star-Advertiser he has continued to experience headaches, fatigue and dry eyes since leaving the Red Hill pit in February of This year. He fears it is related to the contamination he has been exposed to and has the same concerns for other young servicemen who are unlikely to experience symptoms “right away”.
“Just because you don’t feel it doesn’t mean you’re not going to have something on the road,” he said. He added there should be “some type of registry” to ensure symptoms can be documented and investigated. As of now, Simic said he and his family struggled to seek treatment in Florida because their illnesses and symptoms were not officially linked to the fuel exposure they had in Hawaii.
“It must be a concern for the military to track anyone who has been tasked to work so close to such a contaminated atmosphere,” he said.
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