Hawaii health officials order Navy to clean up contaminated drinking water after families are forced to move out of their homes

The Hawaii Department of Health is ordering the Navy to take immediate action to address contaminated drinking water at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, an issue that has forced more than 700 people from their homes and left parents fearing the water they bathed their children in made them sick.

Hawaii health officials order Navy to clean up contaminated drinking water after families are forced to move out of their homes
© KGMB/KHNL US Navy service members fill potable water for residents at the Navy Exchange Mall.

The Navy previously said it shut down its Red Hill well on November 28 and that families living on base reported symptoms including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches and skin-related concerns.

The Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, built during World War II, is located 100 feet above the Red Hill aquifer, which supplies drinking water to the base and other areas of Hawaii. It can store up to 250 million gallons of fuel, according to the Navy.

Testing revealed petroleum hydrocarbons and vapors in the water, the Navy said Friday.

On Sunday, the deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Rear Adm. Blake Converse said it was confirmed that a petroleum leak is the cause of the latest breach.

Hawaii’s order requires the Navy to immediately suspend operations at the storage faciity, according to a tweet from Gov. David Ige.

The order also requires the Navy to take immediate steps to install a drinking water treatment system at the Red Hill well, submit a work plan to assess system integrity, and defuel the Red Hill underground storage tanks within 30 days of corrective action.

“Hawaiʻi’s wellbeing and the safety of our residents, including military families, must come first. We cannot have national security without ensuring public health and safety,” Ige said on Twitter. “There are still important questions that need to be answered and the Order will help get there.”

The military has offered all service members and civilian employees living near the base the opportunity to get alternative housing, and Converse said Sunday it was covering the cost of hotel rooms for more than 700 people.

During a town hall with Navy officials Sunday, frustrated military families demanded action and accountability.

“I’m here to ask why you weren’t a wingman to protect my 13-month-old son when I was bathing him, when I was giving him a sippy cup full of water from my faucet, when he has been throwing up for days on end,” one woman, who didn’t give her name, said, growing emotional. “I’m here to ask why you weren’t my wingman as my husband and I have had mysterious serious symptoms such as sore throats, burning in my stomach, profuse, unusual sweating, headaches unable to be mitigated, requiring multiple ER visits for additional medications, vomiting, diarrhea, skin irritation,” the woman asked of the Navy officials.

Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday said Monday the first priority is to take care of those affected by the water contamination. “That includes medical care, that includes food and includes water,” he said during a news conference.

The Navy hopes to restore water service to residents soon, but “the key point here is that getting it right is more important than doing it fast,” Gilday said. “Because what we don’t want to do is to move people back into their homes to restore service prematurely before we have the utmost confidence in that system, so that we’re not going through this again,” he said.

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro visited the storage facility Monday and said the Navy is getting closer to determining the root cause of the water contamination.

“There is an ongoing investigation that is led by US Pacific Fleet into the cause of the incident,” Del Toro said at the news conference. “Once that investigation is complete, we will review those findings and adjust our operating procedures, as necessary.”

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply is also encouraging the Navy to remove fuel from the Red Hill storage facility, BWS manager and chief engineer, Ernest Lau, told CNN.

Lau suspended operation of the Halawa Shaft on Thursday. The shaft is Oahu’s largest water source serving Honolulu residents and pulls from the same aquifer as the Navy’s Red Hill well. Lau said he won’t resume operation at Halawa until the fuel is removed from Red Hill.

Honolulu is now relying on its other wells to maintain water service to its customers, which Lau said isn’t posing a huge problem during the current wet season, but the system could become strained during the summer months.

A history of fuel leaks

Records show a history of fuel leaks plaguing Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in the past decade, with the most recent leak occurring 11 days before the Navy announced it had discovered contamination in the Red Hill well, CNN previously reported.

Another incident in May involved the release of more than 1,600 gallons of jet fuel from a pipeline inside the storage facility, according to the Navy.

“An investigation determined that operator error caused the release of 1,618 gallons of jet fuel (JP-5) from a pipeline inside the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility (RHBFSF) on May 6, 2021,” the Navy said. “The release was not from the fuel tanks.”

In October, the Hawaii Department of Health cited the Navy for violations related to operation and maintenance of the facility, records show. The fines and violations resulted from a routine inspection from September 28, 2020, through October 9, 2020, according to the health department.

The Notice of Violation and Order (NOVO) consisted of five counts with a total penalty in the amount of $325,182, the Hawaii Department of Health said in a news release.

The five counts, the Hawaii Department of Health said in a news release, were:

  • Failure to operate and maintain ongoing corrosion protection to metal components of the portion of the Navy’s tank and piping that contain regulated substances and are in contact with the ground.
  • Failure to perform line tightness testing of repaired piping before return to service.
  • Failure to perform an annual liquid tightness test on spill prevention equipment to prevent releases to the environment.
  • Failure to perform an adequate visual walkthrough inspection of hydrant pits
  • Failure to maintain adequate release detection for two double-walled underground product recovery storage tanks.

In January 2014, during the refueling of a tank, the Navy identified an estimated fuel release of up to 27,000 gallons of JP-8 jet fuel, according to the Hawaii DOH.

“U.S. Navy subsequently drained the tank and collected samples from existing monitoring wells. Results taken in and around Tank 5 indicated increases of hydrocarbons in soil vapor and groundwater,” the health department said. At the time, the agency said the drinking water was in compliance with federal and state “concentrations for drinking water both before and after the January 2014 release.”

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