HONOLULU (KHON2) — This current water issue is not the first time petroleum has been detected in the Navy’s water tests in Hawaii, and there are many ways the contamination could have happened. Always Investigating reviewed years of Navy water testing reports that show past contamination, although this episode has caused unprecedented impact.

We continue to ask: Is the petroleum coming from groundwater and if it is not, how else did it get into the well?

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After 27,000 gallons of fuel released in 2014 from Red Hill’s #5 underground tank, the Navy has been testing their Red Hill water shaft beyond normal regulatory levels and reporting to the state Department of Health (DOH).

Always Investigating compared all of those annual reports since then and found petroleum product (TPH) has been present at that well in the past — as high as 490 parts per billion within the last year. That is above the Department of Health’s environmental action level (EAL), while a TPH under the limit popped up among contaminants in the Navy’s recent emergency test. KHON2 is waiting for the Department of Health to answer what they did about it in the past.

The Navy explained in the 2020 high TPH test: “One TPH-d (C8-C18) EAL exceedance occurred during 2020 testing on a post-chlorination sample. Pre-chlorination samples are believed to be more representative of any potential contact with fuels stored at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility and TPH-d (C8-C18) was not detectable at testing limits for all 2020 pre-chlorination samples. Hawaii Department of Health (HDOH) and the Navy will continue to conduct testing and include results in future Water Quality Reports.”

But this most recent well contamination test from the week of Nov. 29 — at levels under the EAL — coincides with the most noticeable impact at the tap and in households in terms of odors, taste and illness.

“Maybe it’s diluted enough that people didn’t taste it, or maybe this time was a little more concentrated,” explained Bill Wong, retired chief of the state DOH’s Safe Drinking Water Branch.

“I would try to see where did it really come from? So far, we’re not too sure. They said they found or turned off the source, but is it from some cross-connection or at a section of the pipe, or was it from the groundwater?”

Bill Wong, retired chief of the state DOH’s Safe Drinking Water Branch

Cross-connection Wong speaks of means anytime one kind of line — like in this case, water — is hooked up to or intersects with something else, like a fuel line or drain.

Just days before people started noticing the fuel odor in their homes on Sunday, Nov. 28, 14,000 gallons of fuel and water poured out from the Red Hill fire suppression system. Always Investigating sources told us the Navy is looking at a cross-connection with a water line while decommissioning a Red Hill foam fire deluge pipe or defueled product line. Sources said that could be the gateway where petroleum backed up into the water distribution system and the Red Hill shaft well.

“A potable waterline is something that should be protected and it shouldn’t be interconnected with anything that could create substantial contamination or impacts to that potable water line,” said Erwin Kawata, with the Honolulu Board of Water Supply Water Quality Division.

“They’ve got to find out; maybe somebody was trying to connect the water or somehow they were cleaning out the fuel line, and somehow the water got sucked back in, water was in the cleaning line came back into the good water quality line,” Wong added.

KHON2 asked: Could that contaminated water go all the way back to the well?

“It can go anyplace once it gets in the line,” Kawata explained. “Once you pump the well, it is going to go pump out.”

Hawaii has a notable history of cross-connection contamination. A cross-connect between irrigation water and a drinking water line during airport construction decades ago was a huge blunder that caused bacterial contamination.

“We collected samples, we disinfected, and finally found out, unfortunately, that a person, a contractor, had connected the line from the watercress farm to that particular drinking water line,” Wong stated. “That water was contaminated with bacteria and it messed up the whole Diamondhead wing of the airport.”

A connection-type error is easier to control and fix than a widespread groundwater contamination

“Because it’s a very localized contamination. You cut it off. That’s it. That’s all cleared away,” Wong said. “But you know, if it gets into the aquifer, you know how big that is, how much water is around there.”

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Always Investigating is awaiting answers from the Navy about whether the specific source of this contamination is pinpointed, if a faulty or unauthorized connection is involved or if it is groundwater contamination from a widespread spill. They have not yet responded but said, generally, the source has been “identified and isolated.” KHON2 will continue to push for answers.