Sailors assigned to the San Diego-based aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln are questioning their commanding officer’s assurances about the safety of onboard drinking water after it tested positive for E. coli bacteria last month. last.
Sailors said they noticed their drinking water had a distinct odor and was sometimes black shortly after the ship left San Diego on September 20 for an ongoing two-week period.
On Friday morning, the captain announced to the ship’s crew that the source of the bacteria was the bilge water, according to a recording of his public announcement reviewed by the Union-Tribune. Captain Amy Bauernschmidt, commanding officer of the Lincoln, told the crew that bilge water had escaped through a hole in a vent line, contaminating two drinking water tanks.
The hold is essentially a collection space for the ship’s drainage system where sewage is stored until it can be treated and safely discharged, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Bilge waters can contain grease, oil, bacteria and other fluids escaping from separate shipboard systems, such as sewage.
Navy officials said the ship responded quickly to water issues when they were discovered on September 21. That evening, water from one of the ship’s two plants was isolated from the system and the ship switched to water from its second plant, which never tested positive for any contaminants.
However, Lincoln sailors told the Union-Tribune that the smell of fuel could be smelled in the ship’s water for at least six days after the problem began. The Union-Tribune withholds the sailors’ names because they fear reprisals from their command.
Sailors told the Union-Tribune they were concerned that the ship’s management initially downplayed the health risks associated with drinking contaminated water.
The Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier departed its Naval Air Station North Island berth Sept. 20 for a short underway with its air wing based in Lemoore, Calif. The ship has a crew of around 3,000 sailors, which increases to around 5,000 when her air wing is on board.
On September 21, sailors began noticing that drinking water throughout the ship smelled of fuel and was cloudy. Videos of the ship submitted and shared by the “Master at Arms Memes” Facebook page show several clear water bottles with cloudy water and a black layer of film on top.
In one video, milky water flows from a water cooler on the ship. After a few seconds, the water turns dark gray.
On the morning of September 22, Bauernschmidt told her crew in a morning public address that she agreed “something” was going on with the water.
“I don’t know exactly what it is,” Bauernschmidt told the crew. “I just know it’s not bacteria – so it’s not going to make you sick – and it’s not JP-5 (jet fuel),” according to recordings of his public announcements reviewed by the Union-Tribune.
Bauernschmidt then said good water was flowing through the pipes and it might take a while to clear what was causing the problem the night before.
“If you don’t want to use this water for drinking,” she added, “you can use it to scrub some decks…let’s use water for this cleaning.”
In a second address to the crew that day, Bauernschmidt said the ship had isolated water tanks and suggested that the Lincoln may have brought “bad” water from shore, or that it had been contaminated by a hold.
On September 22, Bauernschmidt told the crew that water samples had been sent off the ship for testing, but in the meantime she was “still drinking water from my tap.”
In a third address that evening, Bauernschmidt told the crew that although the ship’s testing capacity was limited, they were testing all tanks on board and sending samples to civilian laboratories ashore. The results, she said, were expected the following day.
“We did all of this because we believe you and we’re trying to figure out what was in the water,” she said. She told sailors that bottled water and sodas were available on the mess decks, but she always drank from the ship’s supplies.
Then, three minutes into his speech, Bauernschmidt told the crew that “some presence” of E. coli bacteria had been detected in three of the four tanks tested the previous night.
“Before anyone starts freaking out, keep listening to me,” Bauernschmidt said in his speech. “E. coli is extremely common bacteria, in fact every single person on this ship has E. coli in their digestive system right now. There’s good E. coli and there’s bad E. coli, I don’t don’t know what kind we have…”
Bauernschmidt then described the symptoms of the E. coli-related illness as “the double dragon” – diarrhea and vomiting – and assured sailors that it normally cleared up within 24 hours.
The Naval Preventive Medicine Manual sets the standard for E. coli bacteria in the water of U.S. Navy ships at zero, said Cmdr. Zachary Harrell, a Naval Air Forces spokesman, who handles media inquiries for the ship and its command while in port.
Lincoln sailors told the Union-Tribune that the ship’s water – used for cooking, showering and washing – was a must for the current two weeks. Bottled water and sodas provided on the mess decks the night of 22 September were quickly collected by other sailors that night and not replenished. The ship’s store sold bottled water.
“We survived on sodas, Red Bulls and Gatorade,” said one sailor.
Harrell said bottled water supplies were replenished on board several times while the ship was at sea, but acknowledged that not all sailors may have been able to access the water while others were asking for bottles.
Sailors also said there were long queues at the ship’s medical department and several people had developed rashes and some had nosebleeds.
The Navy said no sailors had been made ill by the ship’s water, and in the month since, none had exhibited symptoms indicative of waterborne contaminants.
“There have been no confirmed cases of illness related to the ship’s water, but the Abraham Lincoln Medical Department continues to closely monitor their sailors for any potential symptoms,” Harrell said in a statement. “No one has had any medically reported illnesses associated with or relating to waterborne illness.”
The Navy took several days to disclose the presence of E. coli to the general public.
When asked Sept. 26 by the Union-Tribune if E. coli had been detected – four days after the test result came back positive, the Navy’s response was only that unspecified bacteria had been found.
The spokesperson later said the results had not been confirmed at the time.
“I shared information that I knew had been confirmed and I didn’t have confirmation of that information at the time, otherwise I would have shared it with (the Union-Tribune),” said the Cmdr. Sean Robertson, spokesman for the 3rd Fleet, in an email Monday.
Bauernschmidt told the crew on Friday that samples of the ship’s bilge water were being tested and they would know what was in the bilge when the ship received the results in November.
The Lincoln’s water problems arose following a similar problem on another nuclear-powered carrier, the Nimitz. Kerosene contaminated the drinking water of this Bremerton, Wash.-based vessel while operating off the coast of San Diego on September 16. The carrier was sidelined in San Diego for two weeks as the Navy flushed its system with municipal water.
At least 11 Nimitz sailors have reported illnesses associated with contaminated water, the Navy said.
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