Watchdog: Significant Concerns Regarding Drinking Water Safety at Navy Bases Overseas

US Navy Sailors cleaning a hangar
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Stacy D. Laseter)

A 2013 investigation by the Navy Inspector General (Navy IG) reveals shortfalls in the oversight and management of drinking water for Navy personnel stationed overseas—even in wealthy, developed countries. The previously unreleased report, obtained by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), concludes that “not a single Navy overseas drinking water system meets U.S. compliance standards” or the Navy’s own governing standards.

The Navy IG’s investigation found that One-Day Assessments were being used as the primary tool to determine whether water was safe to drink, and that such tests were “insufficient to verify the range and scope of compliance deficiencies, [or] water quality issues.” Relying on those assessments “created a very high risk for the Navy” (emphasis in original).

If our Navy overseas installations were operated in the United States, selective use of “health risk assessments” to circumvent drinking water standards/regulations and indifference to public health deficiencies would constitute knowing and willful violation of U.S. law.

Unlike facilities in the continental United States, Navy installations overseas were not required to submit operational records or logs to review compliance with water standards. Additionally, the IG found that the sanitary surveys used were “not always independent.”

“If our Navy overseas installations were operated in the United States, selective use of ‘health risk assessments’ to circumvent drinking water standards/regulations and indifference to public health deficiencies would constitute knowing and willful violation of U.S. law,” the Navy IG wrote.

However, even after testing revealed that the water at Air Station Sigonella had “chronic” excess levels of bromate—a potential carcinogen—officials repeatedly questioned the accuracy of the tests rather than acting on the findings. This stands in stark contrast to how private companies have responded to excess levels of bromate.

In 2004, the Coca-Cola company recalled 500,000 bottles of water after finding excess levels of bromate. In 2006, both Wegmans and Weis Markets also issued voluntary recalls when their bottled water tested higher than maximum allowable levels under Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requirements.

The 2013 report is a follow-up to a previous Navy IG report, published in 2009, that found overseas Navy installations did not meet the same public health standards as U.S. installations. In response, then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead ordered commanders at Navy Installations Command and Naval Facilities Engineering Command to “establish protocols and procedures to ensure our overseas installations have drinking water that meets or exceeds the United States water quality standards.”

Some good news is that documents obtained by POGO show that since the 2013 IG report the Navy has spent or funded at least $18 million in water plant and distribution system improvement projects. And, as of December 2015, the Navy IG found Naval Air Station Sigonella’s Overseas Drinking Water (ODW) management team appropriately closed 350 of 403 identified deficiencies.

However, as described below, more review is likely necessary to ensure that those deficiencies have really been addressed, (and might have been fixed more quickly if they had been made public).

Whistleblower Tip Exposes Drinking Water Safety Concerns at Sigonella

A whistleblower tip regarding drinking water concerns prompted the Navy IG to visit Naval Air Station Sigonella in 2011.

After investigation, the Navy IG substantiated the allegation that non-drinkable water without chlorine was distributed for several days. And, in a separate 2012 visit, the Navy IG determined that the facility failed to properly disinfect water from October 2011 to September 2012. Additional chlorine and pH deficiencies, and a continued practice of blending untreated and potentially contaminated well water “despite documented concerns for public health,” were also found.

To top it all off, there were also excess levels of bromate, the potential carcinogen discussed above. The Navy first detected levels eight times above acceptable standards in December 2011; and a subsequent test in March 2012 found those levels were six to 17 times the levels allowed. In May 2012, bromate levels were 24 times above the maximum.

Ultimately the public didn’t know about repeated instances of excess bromate levels until May 28th—more than 140 days after the first detection.

Navy officials did not inform their staff or the public about these issues in reasonably prompt manner. The EPA requires public notices to be issued within 30 days of a violation, and the best practice under Sigonella’s own governing standard is to notify the public “as soon as possible” when drinking water is out of compliance. Despite this, however, the public works personnel on base “decided again to delay public notification until another round of water samples was collected and analyzed.”

The Principal Deputy, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations, and Environment, Roger Natsuhara, reversed that decision, but ultimately the public didn’t know about repeated instances of excess bromate levels until May 28th—more than 140 days after the first detection.

The public was notified via a public Facebook post, which the Navy IG found had “inaccurately advised that ‘Showering, hand washing, tooth brushing, and dish washing will not lead to any significant exposure to bromate.’” The disclosure also falsely implied that the first awareness of excess bromate occurred on May 17th, rather than in December the previous year. Even taken at face value, however, the information was concerning to many of the individuals on site.

 “Just out of curiosity, why did it take 11 days for us to be notified of this? It seems as though if we should not be drinking this water, we should have known alot sooner,” one commenter replied on the post. “I don’t drink the tap water all, but I teach at the elementary school and send kids to the water fountain all day long (not anymore of course).”

Because officials focused on repeatedly questioning the results, the base still had “not conclusively identified the source of the bromate or modified processes and procedures to ensure compliance with” bromate level requirements. Additionally, the Navy IG’s review of facility logs also found the facility “routinely violate[d] the permissible operating ranges for chlorine and pH,” with noncompliance rates of 95 percent and 96 percent for chlorine concentration and 32 percent and 11 percent for pH levels. The swings in pH levels can contribute to corrosivity of drinking water, which can increase the risk of metals leaching from pipes into the water. The Navy IG wrote that “[t]he operational logs are more of an exercise of merely filling out paperwork rather than driving real-time corrections to water system operations.”

And then, not only are these facilities’ practices inhibiting problems from being fixed on a faster timeframe, they are incorrectly reporting problems as fixed that have yet to be addressed. Several deficiencies marked as complete at Air Station Sigonella were uncorrected, the Navy IG noted. For example, inspectors found that reported repairs to leaking chemical feed system piping and fittings showed “[m]ultiple signs of leaking.” Because facilities self-report whether deficiencies were addressed, there is “an inherent conflict of interest that can lead to failures to correct deficiencies.”

Other Facilities Rated “Green” Had Unsafe Drinking Water

Installations are rated “green” if they meet 90 percent of standards, which “does not account for the severity or risk to public health of any of the compliance deficiencies.” The Navy IG also determined that the application of rating facilities red or green was “inconsistent.”

The Navy IG found multiple “significant” violations at the Naval Radio Transmitter Facility Niscemi in Sicily, including “bromate exceedances and failure to maintain adequate disinfection.” The Navy rated this facility green.

The “lack of transparency” with those impacted, “has the potential for the same high profile and damaging negative consequences for the Navy that Camp Lejeune continues to have for the Marine Corps.”

At Commander Fleet Activities Sasebo, located in Nagasaki, Japan, all of the examined sites where water had been deemed drinkable (or potable) were not in compliance with standards for lead and copper monitoring. Yet, despite these issues, the facility was considered compliant with standards.

Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia, which provides logistics support to forces deployed to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, was also rated green. But the Navy IG found that they did not actually have potable water at the tap. In that case, Sailors knew and filled their bottled water from water tanks; but personnel at the Port of Jebel Ali, who also were required to use bottled water, had their facility listed as “red.” And yet, despite this rating, U.S. Central Command authorized the use of non-potable water for “washing, cleaning, and showering since 2010”—in direct violation of Navy and Marine Corps policies in place since 2008.

Deficiencies Draw Comparisons to Camp Lejeune, Reflect Systemic Problems

The Navy IG study found that the problems identified in the report, and the “lack of transparency” with those impacted, “has the potential for the same high profile and damaging negative consequences for the Navy that Camp Lejeune continues to have for the Marine Corps.”

Water contamination at U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) Base Camp Lejeune between 1957 and 1987 exposed a million Marines and their family members to toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens. Many Marines and their family members died as a result, including children with extreme birth defects and leukemia. “It took the USMC more than four years to shut down drinking water wells they knew to be contaminated with toxic chemicals,” the House Science Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee found. “[A]nd another 24 years and an act of Congress to force them to inform veterans about this contamination of potential health problems.”

The Navy is far from the only service found to be deficient in its oversight of the safety of drinking water and facilities for servicemembers.

The Gazette reported last October the Air Force ignored “decades of warnings from its own researchers” that its firefighting foam “is a leading cause of contaminated drinking water.” Chemicals present in the foam caused liver damage, cellular damage, and low birth weight of offspring to laboratory animals. The Environmental Protection Agency found the chemical was “likely to be carcinogenic to humans[,]” but had yet to ban it.

The Department of Defense Inspector General released a report summarizing six of its own reports based upon inspections of DoD facilities and housing at military installations both at home and abroad. Their inspections found “systemic problems resulted in increased health and safety risks to service members,” due in part to “DoD not holding contractors accountable for poor performance while constructing and maintaining facilities.” There were “an average of two to three electrical and fire prevention deficiencies per building inspected.” U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys, located in South Korea, had not performed required monthly drinking water quality tests for about 8 months.

Need to Put Public Health Officials In Charge

Both the 2009 and the 2013 reports recommended shifting the public health experts at the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED) to an oversight role, rather than a merely advisory one. The Navy IG raised concerns that current managers “do not utilize public health professionals that are knowledgeable in public issues related to drinking water, which means these commands are not providing public health experts to make decisions on these water quality boards.” Public health officials on the boards are currently “advisory only.”

The Navy IG also raised concerns that unlike with navy installations stateside, no organization is responsible for correcting deficiencies at overseas bases in a timely manner. This results in a pattern of “not correcting documented short and long-term deficiencies that continue to increase public health risks.”

But when presented with this recommendation, some of those public health officials rejected an increased oversight role: “We are not the water czars.” The Navy ultimately rejected the recommendation.

Report Not Released Publicly

Notably, the Navy IG’s report was marked “For Official Use Only” (FOUO), not released to the public, and not included in the Department of Defense Inspector General’s (DoD IG) semiannual report to Congress. Documents obtained by POGO indicate that the “close-hold” on the report may have been motivated by investigators comparing deficiencies to Camp Lejeune.

After the report was issued, then-Navy IG Vice Admiral James Caldwell visited stakeholders and issued a subsequent review of the findings of the study. He found that overall the study “correctly identified [Overseas Drinking Water] system weaknesses and the slow response in implementing [the Secretary of the Navy’s] and [Chief Naval Officer’s] direction regarding quality standards.”

But the review did take issue with the comparisons to Camp Lejeune, finding they should have been “avoided.” “[T]he authors of the 2013 ODW [Overseas Drinking Water] study referenced historical Camp Lejeune water issues and possible perceptions of public health risks in order to sensitize Navy leaders to derived implications of the status quo—not as information to support technical conclusions,” he wrote. While many issues identified had since been addressed, he found that many “recurring ‘significant deficiencies’ from ODW sanitary surveys still require correction. Some systems have uncorrected deficiencies that were identified years ago.”

Proactive Disclosures Can Help

Earlier this year, the Department of Defense Inspector General adopted a policy of proactive release for FOUO reports, rather than requiring a Freedom of Information Act request to make them publicly available. The Navy IG’s decision not to publicly release a report about risks to public health for servicemembers raises serious concerns about their capacity to act as an effective watchdog, and may have only compounded the report’s concerns about the cover-up about these risks being worse than the report’s actual findings.

In the past, the Navy modeled its report policies on DoD IG’s practices, which was to release reports after there have been three requesters. “We will adopt the DODIG approach regarding investigation reports,” the Navy IG said in a 2013 policy memo. “[B]ased on our history [that] would entail very few investigations actually being posted.” Hopefully the Navy IG will consider continuing to follow DoD IG’s lead and adopt proactive disclosure.

The health of our servicemembers, their families, and the public in their proximity is not something we want to gamble with.

Photograph of Mandy Smithberger

By: Mandy Smithberger, Director, CDI Straus Military Reform Project

Mandy Smithberger is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight.