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State inspector detected fuel odor during probe into possible tainted water but tests inconclusive

Results of early testing from the Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system have been “inconclusive,” but the state confirmed that an inspector did detect a fuel odor.
Published: Nov. 30, 2021 at 1:56 PM HST|Updated: Nov. 30, 2021 at 5:48 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Results of early testing from the Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system have been “inconclusive,” but the state confirmed Tuesday that an inspector did detect a fuel odor when visiting two schools ― Red Hill Elementary and the Aliamanu child development center.

Kathleen Ho, deputy director for environmental health, said the state has gotten more than 100 complaints from military families about their water.

The water system overseen by the Navy serves more than 93,000 people, mostly military households but also schools and some businesses.

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Ho said samples have been sent to the mainland for more sensitive testing and those results are expected by the end of the week.

In the meantime, customers of the Pearl Harbor-Hickam are being urged not to use the water.

“In the interests of public safety and to protect human health, we’re taking a very conservative approach,” Ho said, adding investigations into the source of the possible contamination also continue.

Results of early testing from the Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system have been “inconclusive."

The Navy is facing calls from Hawaii’s congressional delegation and the governor to act quickly to determine what happened ― and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“Reports of fuel potentially contaminating the water supply at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam followed by a slow, inadequate response are especially troubling,” the delegation said, in a joint statement.

The statement continued:

“The Navy must act immediately and do everything it can to expedite the testing being done on the mainland to determine any risks to the drinking water. It also needs to ensure that residents in all affected areas have access to safe drinking water until the Navy and state regulators can assure the public it is safe. We also expect clear and consistent communication with the public about all matters, but particularly those that impact health and safety.”

The Navy first reported problems with the water to the state on Sunday night, Ho said.

Residents are reporting that the water smells like fuel and has caused health effects, including vomiting, diarrhea, and rash.

Ho said some of the symptoms residents are reporting are consistent with petroleum exposure.

The Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Emergency Operations Center is taking calls from residents concerned about their water. There are three numbers available: 808-448-2570; 808-448-3262; and 808-448-2583. Only those who get water from the Navy would be impacted.

On Tuesday morning, Gov. David Ige stressed the need for a rapid response.

“We are concerned if there was some process that got fuel into our water supply, that certainly is unacceptable,” he said.

“We are committed to working with them (the Navy) to take the actions necessary to flush out the water if that’s necessary and I think most importantly try to identify what happened.”

It’s unclear if the possible contamination is connected to the Red Hill Fuel Storage Facility. The underground facility has had leaks in the past, including one earlier this month.

The Navy’s Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system draws from aquifers in Waiawa, Halawa and Red Hill.

The Board of Water Supply confirms its water system is completely separate from the Navy’s, but adds officials are closely monitoring the situation. The city water source that’s closest to the Red Hill fuel storage facility is the Halawa Shaft pumping station, and there have been no complaints.

City officials say water there was last tested in October and showed no signs of fuel contamination.

As a precaution, however, the Board of Water Supply said it “will be increasing the testing frequency of its water sources in the vicinity of the Red Hill fuel tanks.”

Meanwhile, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi says he was briefed by the Navy on Tuesday morning and is awaiting further information.

“They’ve taken samples. Everything’s been sent the mainland. We’re going to know in 72 hours. That will tell us a lot,” he said.

“I’ve read varying reports on the leaks at Red Hill. And the complaints that have come in. But until we know factually I’d rather not just say anything. I have a lot of confidence in the Navy’s testing to give us the answers that we want to know.”

If you’re unsure where your water comes from, check your bill.

If you receive a bill from the Board of Water Supply, you do not get your water from the Navy.

And if you are a Navy customer, you’re being asked to flush the lines at your home by running the hot and cold taps in your home for three to five minutes.

“The primary water distribution mains associated with the housing areas affected by possible potable water contamination have been flushed twice and the third flush is ongoing,” the Navy said.

“However, there remains a concern that residual contamination may exist in some of the water lines based on continued reports from residents.”

This story will be updated.

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