The San Diego Union-Tribune
Sailors assigned to the San Diego-based aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln are questioning the assurances made by their commanding officer about the safety of drinking water on board after it tested positive for E. coli bacteria last month.
The sailors said they noticed their drinking water had a distinct odor and at times ran black shortly after the ship left San Diego on Sept. 20 for a two-week underway period.
On Friday morning, the captain announced to the ship’s crew that the source of the bacteria was bilge water, according to a recording of her public address announcement reviewed by the Union-Tribune. Capt. Amy Bauernschmidt, the commanding officer of the Lincoln, told the crew that bilge water leaked through a hole in a vent line, contaminating two potable water tanks.
The bilge is essentially a collection space for the ship’s drainage system where wastewater is stored until it can safely be processed and discharged, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Bilgewater may contain grease, oil, bacteria and other fluids leaking from separate shipboard systems, such as sewage.
Navy officials said the ship was quick to react to the water problems when they were discovered on Sept. 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 contaminant.
However, Lincoln sailors told the Union-Tribune that a fuel-like odor could be smelled in the ship’s water for at least six days after the problem began. The Union-Tribune is withholding the names of the sailors because they fear reprisal from their command.
Sailors told the Union-Tribune they’re concerned that the ship’s leadership initially downplayed the health risks associated with drinking the contaminated water.
The Nimitz class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier left its Naval Air Station North Island berth on Sept. 20 for a short underway period with its Lemoore, Calif.-based carrier air wing. The ship has a crew of about 3,000 sailors, which expands to about 5,000 when its air wing is on board.
On Sept. 21, sailors began noticing potable water all over the ship smelled like fuel and was hazy. Videos from the ship submitted to and shared by the “Master at Arms Memes” Facebook page show several clear water bottles with hazy water and a black layer of film at the top.
In one video, milky water flows from a water fountain on the ship. After a few seconds, the water turns dark gray.
On the morning of Sept. 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 a bacteria — therefore it’s not going to make you sick — and it’s not JP-5 (jet fuel),” according to recordings of her public address announcements reviewed by the Union-Tribune.
Bauernschmidt then said good water was flowing through the pipes and it could take some time to flush out whatever was causing the previous day’s issue.
“If you don’t want to use that water to drink,” she added, “you can use it to scrubby-scrubby some decks … let’s use some water for that cleaning.”
In a second address to the crew that day, Bauernschmidt said the ship isolated some water tanks and suggested the Lincoln might have brought on “bad” water from shore, or that it was contaminated by a bilge.
On Sept. 22, Bauernschmidt told the crew that water samples had been sent off ship for tests, but in the meantime, she was “still drinking water out of my faucet.”
In a third address that evening, Bauernschmidt told the crew that, although the ship’s testing capacity was limited, they were testing all the tanks on board and sending samples to civilian labs ashore. Results, she said, were expected the next day.
“We did all that because we believe you, and we are trying to figure out what it is that was in the water,” she said. She told sailors bottled water and soda was available on the mess decks, but that she was still drinking from the ship’s supply.
Then, three minutes into her address, Bauernschmidt told the crew that “some presence” of E. coli bacteria was detected in three out of four tanks tested the night before.
“Before anybody starts freaking out, keep listening to me,” Bauernschmidt said in the address. “E. coli is an extremely common bacteria, matter of 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 know what kind we have….”
Bauernschmidt then described the symptoms of E. coli-related illness as “the double dragon” — diarrhea and vomiting — and assured sailors it normally went away within 24 hours.
The Manual of Naval Preventive Medicine sets the standard for E. coli bacteria in the water of U.S. Navy vessels at zero, said Cmdr. Zachary Harrell, a spokesperson for Naval Air Forces, which handles media questions for the ship and its command while it’s in port.
Lincoln sailors told the Union-Tribune that the ship’s water — used for cooking, showering and laundry — was inescapable during the two-week underway. The bottled water and sodas provided on the mess decks the night of Sept. 22 were quickly scooped up by other sailors that night and were not replenished. The ship’s store sold out of bottled water.
“We survived on sodas, Red Bulls and Gatorade,” one sailor said.
Harrell said bottled water supplies were replenished on board several times while the ship was at sea but acknowledged it’s possible not all sailors were able to access the water as others claimed bottles.
The sailors also said there were long lines at the ship’s medical department and that several people developed skin rashes and some had nosebleeds.
The Navy said no sailors were sickened by the ship’s water and that in the month since none had presented 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 had illnesses reported to medical associated with or concerning waterborne illness.”
The Navy took several days to disclose the presence of E. coli to the general public.
When asked on Sept. 26 by the Union-Tribune if E. coli was detected — four days after the test result had shown positive, the Navy’s response was only that unspecified bacteria was found.
The spokesperson later said the results had not been confirmed at the time.
“I shared information that I knew was confirmed and I did not have confirmation of that information at the time or I would have shared with (the Union-Tribune),” said Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a 3rd Fleet spokesperson, in an email Monday.
Bauernschmidt told the crew Friday samples of the ship’s bilge water are being tested and they’ll know what was in the bilge when the ship receives the results in November.
The issues with the Lincoln’s water came on the heels of a similar problem on another nuclear-powered carrier, the Nimitz. Jet fuel contaminated the drinking water on that Bremerton, Wa.-based ship while it was operating off the San Diego coast on Sept. 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 reported illnesses associated with the contaminated water, the Navy said.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.