Is the water safe to drink? Mixed messaging continues between Navy and DOH over sample test results

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HONOLULU (KHON2) — Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam (JBPHH) held a virtual town hall meeting on Thursday, Dec. 16, to discuss the Navy’s water sample test results they say show no detectable contamination above the state health department’s Environmental Action Level (EAL).

The Navy released test results of samples taken since Nov. 29 throughout its water distribution system that were collected by a contractor at key locations.

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The Navy says the “highly accurate test results” show no contamination above the Hawaii State Department of Health (DOH) EAL. The findings, however, contradict what the DOH reported last week.

According to the DOH, samples collected from the Navy’s Red Hill drinking water shaft tested positive for high levels of gasoline and diesel range hydrocarbons, with petroleum levels 350 times the limit for safe drinking water. Click here to read the lab results from the Navy’s Red Hill shaft.

This comes as Hawaii’s congressional leaders are pushing the Navy to cooperate instead of fighting the emergency order to empty fuel tanks at Red Hill. This comes as the Navy tries to assure military families that the necessary steps are being taken to make sure the water will be safe when they return home.

Hawaii’s congressional delegation reached out to leaders on Capitol Hill to have funding available to address the water contamination crisis at Red Hill. U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and U.S. Reps. Ed Case and Kaiali’i Kahele signed a letter with the request to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and the chairs of congressional appropriations committees.

The Navy plans to contest the state’s emergency order to empty the tanks at Red Hill. Sen. Brian Schatz says that is a mistake.

“We’ve been very clear with them that fighting the Department of Health is not the path forward,” said Schatz. “Nothing can happen without the support of the people’s representative at the table, and the people’s representative as it relates to this issue is state government.”

He adds that the fuel tanks should be removed and the sooner the parties can agree to do that, the better.

“Moving them is an extraordinary enterprise, and we’re going to need resources behind a plan that can actually work,” said Schatz.

The Navy also released its test results saying water samples taken since Nov. 29 showed no detectable contamination above the health department’s EAL. Officials point out that the samples were taken the day after the Red Hill shaft was turned off.

“As of 28 November, that shaft was secured, and that is a well that is not pumping water into any part of the Navy’s distribution system, and it hasn’t been since the evening of 28 November,” one of the Navy officials said during Thursday’s town hall.

Officials add that they’re already doing what needs to be done.

“But yet we still need to flush and make sure the entire system is clear. So we are going to ensure the water is safe for human consumption through a rigorous and long-term testing protocol,” he said.

The Sierra Club points out that they’ve heard this reassurance before.

“If you recall just a few weeks ago, as people were getting sick, breaking out into rashes, vomiting, the Navy, at the same time were saying that their tests did not indicate any contamination,” said Wayne Tanaka, director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii.

The DOH issued an emergency order asking the Navy to take immediate action, including suspending the operation at the Red Hill bulk fuel storage facility, installing a drinking water treatment system at the shaft and submitting a work plan. The Navy, so far, has temporarily suspended the use of the fuel tanks.

The Board of Water Supply (BWS) supports the DOH’s emergency order, citing the need to protect the aquifer that sits below the fuel tanks from further contamination. BWS shut down the Halawa shaft, one of its main sources of water, and their Aiea well out of an abundance of caution.

On Wednesday, Dec. 15, the DOH released 27 new lab reports — five of them detected trace levels of petroleum product at residences in Iroquois Point and McGrew Point well below the EAL. However, after meeting dozens of families with health problems, state Sen. Kurt Fevella is puzzled.

“These families are not making up being sick,” said Sen. Fevella. “They have rash, they’re throwing up, adding to the condition of health and welfare for their kids who have leukemia and one of them has epilepsy.”

Watch Sen. Fevella’s interview below:

Following the closure of the Navy’s Red Hill shaft and Aiea Halawa shaft, the Navy said on Thursday 100% of its water is coming from its Waiawa shaft, which is pumping 14 to 15 million gallons per day and is safe for consumption. They say there’s no contamination above the EAL.

Watch the virtual town hall below:

The DOH, however, continues to advise all Navy water system users to avoid using the water for drinking, cooking or oral hygiene. If the water has a fuel-like odor, 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. 

Kapilina Beach Homes Management says the Navy has told them that the water to Kapilina Beach Homes has been tested multiple times and meets the DOH’s drinking water standards. However, management is seeking clarification from local health officials. Some residents have complained about having adverse side effects after showering in their homes.

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The evidentiary hearing concerning the DOH’s Order on Red Hill Operations is scheduled for Monday, Dec. 20, at 8 a.m. The hearing will be streamed here and will continue day to day until completed. Click here to view the hearing notice.

The Navy says water will not be used from its Red Hill shaft until the DOH and EPA agree it’s safe.

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