HONOLULU (KHON2) — The Board of Water Supply (BWS) is calling on the state to lower the threshold of how much fuel is allowed in drinking water. A higher level set just a few years back proved insufficient to flag the Red Hill contamination crisis. It’s an issue Always Investigating has been tracking.
The state raised acceptable contaminant levels years before fuel from the Navy’s Red Hill storage facility polluted drinking water for tens of thousands of people.
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Within days after residents saw, smelled and tasted fuel last November 2021, the Navy took water samples at the source. When the results came back a press release proclaimed they’d detected petroleum products in the Red Hill shaft below DOH action levels.
“Of course you’re below the environmental action level because you got them to increase it significantly so that you would never ever run afoul of it,” said Marti Townsend with Earthjustice.
In 2017 the state Department of Health (DOH) raised the bar three to five times higher for what’s called the Environmental Action Level (EAL) for TPH-d. That’s a category of diesel fuels that pop up regularly in ground and drinking water samples from Red Hill.
Water test data tables are dizzying, but people don’t need a PhD to see TPH-d spiking here and there over the years — even before November’s Red Hill contamination crisis.
The state used to draw the line at 100 parts per billion for taste and smell, and 160 for drinking, until 2017 when acceptable levels jumped to 500 and 400 respectively.
“It’s intuitively saying that it’s okay to drink the water even if it smells. And we all know that’s counterintuitive,” explained Erwin Kawata from BWS. “What they had previously was much, much, much, much more protective. It was actually the reverse.”
“Ultimately, the reason given, the logic given was that Red Hill is an active fuel facility,” Townsend recalled. “There are going to be minor leaks and so we want to make sure that we catch the most significant ones without setting off false alarms.”
Always Investigating reviewed Red Hill data taken before the November crisis and saw plenty of what would have been alarm-bell levels had the threshold not gone up.
Always Investigating asked the Health Department about the level change for months. BWS pushed again this week to revisit the limits.
“Board of Water Supply, we are also guardians of public health by making sure that our drinking water fully complies with federal and state drinking water regulations,” said Ernie Lau of BWS. “But the ultimate decider on what is the appropriate level that is protected by public health rests fully with the Department of Health.”
The DOH finally answered KHON2’s pending questions after getting the board’s demand letter this week.
DOH explained the old lower level was from a 1980s Environmental Protection Agency study and that:
a review of the original source documents… determined that the value was based on a mistranslation of worked published in Polish and Russian by the Soviet Union in the 1940s. More recent reviews carried out by the State of California, one of the most environmentally progressive states in the country, were referred to select an updated and more supportable taste and odor threshold for petroleum fuels of 500 (ppb).
That’s not sitting well with BWS which opposed the change back then and even more so now.
“We checked with other states, Massachusetts and Minnesota both have their threshold for drinking water at 200 (ppm),” Kawata said. “California has a level to our understanding it’s about 150. So they’re not in that 400 range.”
“We did have some toxicologists independently come up with their own numbers,” Kawata said, “and those numbers actually were consistent with what the Department of Health (used to have) which was that 160.”
The DOH told KHON2:
“DOH stands by its decision, but to be clear, EALs are under constant review based on updates to science and new information. DOH’s guidance states that “the adequacy of (the HEER Office TPH taste and odor threshold for use as a final drinking water quality standard) should be verified if impacts to actively used sources of drinking water are identified. The situation at Red Hill seems to be a case example of the need for such a review to be carried out.”
KHON2 asked DOH what prompted them to explore changing the numbers higher in the first place. No explanation has been given at this time yet.
“We never got a real clear answer on why what motivated them to take something that they had already set and raise it up higher. We couldn’t get our head around it either,” Lau said. “And I think they continued to see these very high numbers. They may have may have gotten questions from it from the Navy, and so they continue to do some research and they made their choice. We just didn’t understand it ourselves.”
“I think it’s important to note that this choice to raise the bar and allow for more contamination before sounding the alarm was a decision that was made by the previous directors of for the Environmental Health Division of the Department of Health,” Townsend said. “It was whatever the Navy wanted the Navy got. The Navy wanted higher action levels. It saves them from having to file extra reports. They got it.”
KHON2 is awaiting a response from the Navy about its position and role in changes made to the EALs in 2017, if requests for changes were made, and what was cited as reasons in any requests.
“Now that we have new people there [in DOH leadership] who clearly are taking their job seriously, I’m hopeful that they will revisit this decision and reverse it,” Townsend said.
The DOH recently started holding the Navy to a lower threshold of just 200 ppb for clearance after flushing of systems and homes. Always Investigating asked why and the DOH called that “an incident-specific parameter being used for this response.”
“I’m very hopeful that the new leadership will take a second look at this decision and restore the previous more protective environmental action levels,” Townsend said. “If they had been at what they were pre-2017, we may have prevented people from drinking contaminated water, bathing their children in contaminated water.”
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We’ll continue to follow up on any changes, and the Navy’s response.