Here’s how jet fuel can contaminate the water on navy carriers and naval vessels

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  • The crew of a US Navy aircraft carrier recently discovered that jet fuel was contaminating the water supply.
  • Several Navy and Marine Corps veterans told Insider they’ve encountered the same issue on other ships.
  • An expert with experience in naval engineering explained how jet fuel contaminates a ship’s drinking water.

The US Navy recently found jet fuel in the water with which sailors drink, cook and shower on the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier, and veterans said it has been a problem on warships for decades. An expert explained to Insider this week how this potentially dangerous contamination can occur.

A former naval officer with a background in naval engineering explained that this can happen when the pipes between a ship’s drinking water tanks and fuel oil tanks are not aligned or connected correctly.

Last month, the Navy admitted that the Nimitz’s water supply had been contaminated by what it called “tracks” of jet fuel. A sailor on the ship later told Insider the problem had arisen. much worse than what the service described and that they were “exposed to an unhealthy amount” of jet fuel.

Days after the kerosene was found on the aircraft carrier, a Navy official said USNI News that the water contamination was not the result of a system failure or leak, but was actually caused by a procedural “alignment issue”. As one expert explained to Insider, not aligning the fuel and water tanks properly can create a situation where fuel oil can seep into the water system.

Following reports of the Nimitz, veteran sailors and Marines who served on aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships told Insider that they also drank or bathed water contaminated with jet fuel at some point during their service. These veterans served on various Navy warships for four decades.

Here’s how jet fuel can contaminate a ship’s water

On an aircraft carrier like the Nimitz, there are tanks used to store jet fuel for military aircraft – parts of the carrier’s air wing – which must be inspected periodically to ensure that it does not there is no contamination, Bryan Clark, a former Navy officer who is now an expert advocate at the Hudson Institute, told Insider.

For inspection, these tanks must be drained of fuel and then flushed with fresh water from the vessel’s potable water system so that there is no fuel residue inside the tanks and engineers can examine them safely. In doing so, the crew must physically connect the vessel’s potable water system to its fuel oil system via piping.

“You don’t want it to be something that’s normally connected, to avoid the issue we’re talking about,” Clark said in a recent interview.

Aligning the drinking water system and the fuel system involves opening valves that are normally locked in order to allow the two systems to connect. The fuel system is supposed to be depressurized and the potable water system should be pressurized. This way, when the valves open, water is pushed into the fuel tank instead of the other way around.

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln transits the Indian Ocean.

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln transits the Indian Ocean.

Stocktrek Images/Getty Images



“Alignment is really important,” Clark said. “It’s not complicated, but it’s a methodical set of steps you need to take to connect the potable water system to the fuel oil system and do it in a way that doesn’t back oil up into the drinking water system. If you do the steps in the wrong order, you end up having this problem.”

An error can occur in several ways, he explained.

For example, if the piping connecting the two systems is in place and the valves are open, but the fuel oil tanks are not depressurized, then fuel can enter the potable water system. Or, if the valves are not properly closed after a flush, it can lead to fuel leaking into the water.

In the case of the Nimitz, Navy officials previously said they had identified the source of contamination and isolated it to one of the ship’s 26 potable water tanks. In late September, its drinking water system was being cleaned, flushed and tested at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, an official told Insider at the time.

The Nimitz spent about two weeks in San Diego Harbor as the crew worked to resolve the water contamination issue, a Navy official confirmed to Insider at the time. The official said that since the contamination was discovered, a total of 11 sailors have reported symptoms that can be attributed to exposure to jet fuel, including rashes, headaches and diarrhea.

Very little is known about the health effects of exposure to jet fuel, according to a 2017 study report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry of the Department of Health and Human Services. However, using testimonials from people who have been exposed to kerosene – a compound found in jet fuel – the agency cited reports of “adverse effects” that included symptoms consistent with those described by the Navy.

Clark said the same contamination issue that apparently affected the Nimitz could also impact other warships, such as other carriers or even amphibious assault ships, as they have fuel tanks at board that are flushed with potable water systems.

“This is a problem you should research”

Clark said that while it’s possible to misalign the piping and notice the error immediately, allowing the crew to fix the problem quickly, the problem can also arise without anyone realizing it or not. proactively checks to make sure this wasn’t happening to begin with. . A ship’s potable water system can become contaminated with even a low concentration of fuel, causing it to smell, taste and look strange.

“Normally, if you flush your fuel oil tanks – or your fuel oil system, any part of your fuel oil system – you should watch for this issue, because you have connected the two systems. And once you change the back to where it’s supposed to be – that’s a problem you should be looking for,” Clark said.

This is not a problem that would occur frequently. A vessel does not find itself flushing its fuel tank very often and only happens during tank inspections – which may only happen every few years or when something goes wrong.

However, contamination mitigation is a long and difficult process. The crew should turn off the vessel’s potable water system, completely flush all its sources to avoid residual fuel in the tanks, and check all connections between the water and fuel tanks for misalignment.

“It’s a very careful process of cleaning up and diagnosing the source, then making sure it doesn’t happen again. And I can see where, if you’re not really methodical in how you go about it. take, you might end up not solving a problem,” Clark said.

After the contamination was detected, it took weeks before the Nimitz was ready to sail again, although it did so in early October once the water was found to be within acceptable standards.

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