Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said he is personally monitoring the progress of the Navy’s efforts to take care of military personnel and families affected by the fuel contamination of drinking water in Hawaii and restore it to safety.

Austin has also asked Deputy Secretary of Defense Katheen Hicks to talk with Navy leaders, local Hawaii officials, experts and affected personnel and families during her visit to Hawaii this week, he said in a statement Monday.

Hicks will visit the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, which is at the center of the discussion about the source of the contamination.

“My expectation is that military leaders in Hawaii will continue to do everything they can — as fast as they can — to return residents safely back to their homes and to communicate clearly and frequently the steps they are taking to do so,” Austin said. He said he also expects military leaders to keep Hawaiian residents, legislators and leaders fully informed.

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday visited Hawaii and participated in a town hall meeting with residents Dec. 5, where they were grilled about the Navy’s response and military families’ concerns about health issues and other problems related to the unsafe drinking water.

Austin said he’s getting daily updates from Navy leaders on the measures they’re taking to care for families, restore the water and coordinate with local Hawaii authorities on dealing with the issue.

Navy officials have said they’ve moved more than 3,000 families to hotels across the island. There are 11 housing areas affected, including six Navy communities, three Air Force communities and two Army communities.

“We take this very seriously,” Austin said in his statement.

“I appreciate the value of their efforts to date: providing temporary lodging; establishing a Pregnancy Medical Advice Hotline; delivering more than 150,000 gallons of potable water, and flying in additional water filtration systems to the island,” Austin said.

He supports the Navy’s decision to suspend operations at the Red Hill fuel storage tanks while officials investigate the source of the fuel. The Navy has also committed to conduct an independent study of operations and system integrity at the facility.

Navy officials said they have a “high degree of confidence, based on water testing results” that the contaminant is JP-5 jet fuel and that it comes from a relatively new leak, according to their opening statement to Hawaii state legislators Dec. 10.

But they’re also confident the problem wasn’t a result of a leak from one of the Red Hill fuel tanks, according to Rear Adm. Blake Converse, deputy commander of the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet headquarters.

“From the test results and engineering analysis to date, it appears that some quantity of JP-5 jet fuel entered the Red Hill well in a single event,” Converse stated, likely from a fuel spill that occurred Nov. 20 in a facility access tunnel that provides fire suppression and service lines. The contaminant was then pumped from that well and distributed across those portions of the Navy water system fed by the Red Hill well, according to his statement.

On Nov. 28, residents in a number of housing areas reported a fuel odor in their water. These were residents in neighborhoods fed by the Red Hill well, so that same evening, the Navy shut down that well and stood up the region’s emergency operations center to handle the problem.

Many of the residents had complained of mysterious symptoms before Nov. 28, such as rashes, sore throats, headaches, diarrhea and vomiting. There are now countless questions about current symptoms as well as long-term health effects, especially on children.

Thousands have been evaluated by medical staff, Austin said in his statement.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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