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Sailors aboard a US Navy aircraft carrier recently found themselves drinking and bathing in water contaminated with jet fuel. Veterans say this problem is one that has spanned decades and many different ships.
After Navy officials revealed in late September that the service found what it described as “traces” of jet fuel in USS Nimitz’s water, a sailor on the ship — and their parents — shared photo evidence and testimony with Insider that the problem was significantly worse, with more than just “traces” of fuel in the water.
“We were exposed to an unhealthy amount of” jet fuel, the sailor said last week, arguing that the seriousness of the issue was initially downplayed by the Navy, even as some of the carrier’s crewmembers developed rashes and other troubling symptoms.
Nearly a dozen veterans have since reached out to Insider to share that they also came in contact with water contaminated by jet fuel during their service aboard US warships. Insider spoke with a handful of these veterans — sailors and Marines who served aboard aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships — about their experiences.
Some spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal in their current roles.
These veterans served across four different decades, and all of them said that at some point during their service, they drank or bathed in water contaminated by jet fuel. Some recalled showers that reeked of gasoline and buying flavor packets to try and dilute the fuel taste from their tap water. Some of them said their leaders failed to properly address it, saying that they were told the problem would go away and not to worry about it.
Others said they weren’t sure if there was a good solution, suggesting this occupational hazard may just be a fact of life for service members aboard Navy vessels.
“I believe this has been going on for quite a while,” a sailor who served on the Forrestal-class carrier USS Saratoga in the 1970s said of the contaminated water on the Nimitz. “It’s not the first time. It probably won’t be the last.”
“It Was Just Terrible.”
The veterans who spoke to Insider about their service said that they definitely could smell and taste the jet fuel in the water, though it wasn’t always visible. Some said they were told by leadership that jet fuel had gotten in the water. Contaminated water could be found in water fountains, sinks, and showers on the ships, they said, and it was also used to cook the food they ate.
Some identified the fuel as either JP-5 — also called jet propellant-5 — or Jet A. Along with JP-8, these are types of kerosene-based fuel that the military uses in jets and helicopters deployed on flattops like carriers and big deck amphibs.
According to a 2017 report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an agency under the Department of Health and Human Services, these fuels are all flammable and smell like kerosene, and they can enter an individual’s body through skin contact, the digestive tract, or the lungs. Once jet fuel enters the body, it can spread throughout.
“When you go to take a shower, it smells a lot like jet fuel. It tastes like jet fuel. It was terrible,” a sailor who served on USS Ranger, another Forrestal-class carrier, in the 1980s said. They said because the drains didn’t work in the showers, a few inches of water would build up on the floor, and the whole bathroom “smelled like you were in a gas can.”
Steven Dockstader, who held the rank of a lieutenant during his time on the Iwo Jima-class amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli in the 1990s, said it was “one thing” to bathe in the contaminated water and smell like jet fuel but another thing entirely to drink it.
He said that whenever his ship was in port, sailors and Marines would collect fresh water to bring back so they didn’t have to drink the water on the ship.
A Marine who sailed on the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Boxer during the 2010s said their ship eventually ran out of bottled water, so they bought caffeinated flavoring packets to try and dilute the taste of jet fuel in the water because they were told they would just have to keep using the water supply until the traces of jet fuel washed out.
The USS Saratoga sailor, who was a seaman apprentice at the time, said they tried not to drink the contaminated water and would stick to fountain drinks or milk from the mess hall.
“Everybody knew,” the USS Ranger sailor said of the contaminated water. “Everybody talked about it, everybody complained about it. We all knew that it was happening.”
As with the latest incident aboard the Nimitz, it’s not always clear how jet fuel gets into a ship’s water supply. Bryan Clark, a former Navy officer and current defense expert with naval engineering experience, told Insider that one way this can happen is if the fuel tanks and the potable water tanks get cross connected.
“It would not be hard to do, since the piping is set up to allow for a freshwater flush,” he said. “The most likely scenario is the piping was set up for a flush at some previous time, and was not realigned afterward. In that case one or two valves out of position could put fuel into the potable water system.”
“We Were Just Told That It’ll Go Away.”
The USS Saratoga sailor said that when their fellow sailors approached the vessel’s leadership about the issue, they were told, “Don’t worry about it. It’s not going to hurt you.”
“They were aware of the situation and didn’t really do anything about it,” the sailor added.
Sailors said they believed the medical teams on their respective ships were aware of the problem as well but said they didn’t remember noticing any widespread health issues being reported at the time. Three of the service members Insider spoke with said they don’t think that they’ve had any complications as a result of their suspected exposure to jet fuel.
One said they get the shakes, which they feel may be a result of the contaminated water, and responded affirmatively when asked if they knew other Navy personnel who have also dealt with various complications. Dockstader, one of the ones who hasn’t had any complications, said he saved a sample of the contaminated water as an “insurance policy” while hoping he didn’t develop any health issues.
“We were just told that it’ll go away,” said the Marine who served on USS Boxer and left the service as a corporal.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said in its 2017 report that “very little” is known about the health effects of jet fuel exposure. But going off accounts from people who have been exposed to kerosene, the agency cited reports of “harmful effects” on an individual’s nervous system, respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal tract.
“The observed effects included cough and difficulty breathing, abdominal pain and vomiting, drowsiness, restlessness, and convulsions,” the agency said in its report.
These symptoms are consistent with some accounts from a USS Nimitz sailor, as well as statements from Navy officials on the conditions of Nimitz personnel who recently reported falling ill after jet fuel was detected in the water supply.
Accounts of jet fuel in the water aboard Navy vessels are far from the only times that individuals serving in the US military have been exposed to potentially toxic and hazardous substances.
Last year, for instance, petroleum leaked into the Navy’s water supply at a base in Hawaii, putting sailors and their families at risk, and former service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and were exposed to burn pits, where sewage, trash, and medical waste was disposed, have experienced adverse effects.
“The Sad Truth of the Matter”
Some veterans suggested that there may not be a good solution to the problem and that their ship’s leadership didn’t have a way to fix the problem and did the best they could under the circumstances. The Marine who sailed aboard the Boxer acknowledged that it would have been a challenge for their ship to offload everyone to land and clean out the system.
Still, “I don’t think it was adequately addressed because I shouldn’t have been drinking water that tasted like jet fuel for two weeks,” they said.
Clark, a defense expert at the Hudson Institute, said it isn’t common for jet fuel to contaminate a ship’s water supply, but it happens often enough that the Navy has procedures in place for troubleshooting it.
The views expressed by veterans — that the issue shouldn’t have happened at all — were reflected in comments from a USS Nimitz sailor and their parents, who all said the contaminated water situation was downplayed by Navy leadership and wasn’t initially seen as a pressing issue.
Insider reached out to the Navy for comment on the concerns raised by former service members but has not yet received a response.
“The sad truth of the matter,” Dockstader said, is that “people that serve our country don’t necessarily have their complaints fall on the ears of those that are willing to do something about it right away. And this is potentially a big deal.”
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