HONOLULU (KHON2) — The Board of Water Supply (BWS) held a news conference on Thursday, Dec. 9, after the Hawaii State Department of Health (DOH) was alerted that petroleum was detected in water samples collected from the Navy’s Aiea Halawa shaft.

BWS’s Halawa shaft — which provides 20% of the water supply to urban Honolulu and has been shut down as a precaution — is located about 1.5 miles northeast of the Navy’s Aiea Halawa shaft. The BWS Aiea well was also shut down.

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On Thursday, BWS Manager and Chief Engineer Ernest Lau reported that water samples taken from its Halawa well were tested, and the lab did not detect petroleum contamination.

Lau wants BWS customers to be reassured that their water is not connected to the Navy’s water system and is safe to drink. The company continues to test its five wells on a weekly basis for hydrocarbons.

However, BWS is raising more questions after test results showed petroleum in a second Navy shaft. The agency said the Navy’s explanation of the water test results is not making a lot of sense, which is why BWS is now shutting down two water wells in addition to the Halawa Shaft which was closed Friday, Dec. 3.

The DOH reported Wednesday evening that water from the Navy’s Aiea-Halawa Shaft tested positive for petroleum at more than double the limit allowed for safe drinking water.

The Navy then released a statement Thursday that said: “This sample did not come directly from the Navy’s Aiea-Halawa Well, and the Navy does not believe it indicates contamination of the Navy’s Aiea Halawa Well.”

Additionally, the Navy said that the sample came “from an off-service section of the water distribution system.”

“So where did it come from, Navy? If you’re saying it’s not coming out of the aquifer and not being pumped out of there Aiea Halawa Shaft, then where is it coming from?” asked Ernie Lau, chief engineer at BWS.

BWS pointed out that the shaft is the only water source in that system; if the sample was contaminated, then the well will also be contaminated.

“I think the Navy needs to clarify more as to where that sample came from, under what conditions it was sampled under; we need more clarification and information about that,” said Ernie Kawata, water quality program administrator at BWS.

The uncertainty has forced BWS to close its Aiea and Halawa Wells, which provide water to 20,000 people. Halawa Shaft, which closed on Dec. 3, provides water to 450,000 people. BWS said there should still be enough water for Oahu, but when the summer comes, there could be a problem.

Uncertainty and mixed messaging has United States Sen. Brian Schatz calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to oversee the crisis.

“We can’t afford another day of the Navy and state and county agencies disagreeing on the basic question of whether the drinking water is safe. We need a trusted independent agency with deep expertise and a mission of environmental protection to take over.”

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz

The issue is not only a health concern as some businesses at the Moanalua Shopping Center have not been able to open after management told them they get their water from the Navy’s Red Hill Shaft. Ruby Tuesday Hawaii remains open by bringing in ice and water from a private source at a cost.

“Two thousand pounds of ice is probably over $500 plus an emergency delivery fee, so it’s a substantial cost,” said Rick Nakashima, owner of Ruby Tuesday Hawaii.

This photo shows a tunnel inside the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Jan. 26, 2018.
(U.S. Navy via AP)

The Navy’s Aiea Halawa shaft has been offline since Friday, Dec. 3, and it is one of three groundwater sources that supply drinking water to the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam (JBPHH) water system. According to the DOH, water samples taken on Sunday, Dec. 5, tested for diesel fuel levels that were more than double the DOH’s limits for drinking water.

The Secretary of the Navy & Chief of Naval Operations visited Red Hill on Monday, Dec. 6, to understand the complexity of the situation. (Courtesy: Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday)

The Navy said, to date, it has collected over 100 samples throughout the distribution system that are being shipped off to labs for analysis. Of the 84 sample results, none of them indicated the presence of petroleum products at or near EPA or DOH limits, the Navy reported on Thursday.

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The DOH continues to advise Navy water system users to avoid using the water for drinking, cooking or oral hygiene. If the water has a fuel-like odor, also avoid using it for bathing, dishwashing or laundry. This recommendation applies to users of the Navy’s JBPHH water system, which includes the Aliamanu Military Reservation, Red Hill and Nimitz Elementary Schools and military housing.