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Test detects petroleum product in Pearl Harbor-Hickam water but big questions remain

Published: Dec. 1, 2021 at 1:26 PM HST|Updated: Dec. 1, 2021 at 8:24 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A Hawaii lab has detected a petroleum product in a water sample collected from the Pearl Harbor-Hickam system ― a worrisome finding that comes as the investigation into the source of the fuel-like odor and oily sheen from the water continues.

It’s the first confirmation of what military households and other impacted residents have been reporting for days: That their water smells like fuel and has made them sick. But the results also raise more questions, including how much petroleum is present and what kind it is.

Environmental Health Deputy Director Kathleen Ho stressed the results are preliminary and that further testing is needed. More refined tests are being conducted at a lab in California.

Ho said the sample with petroleum was collected from Red Hill Elementary School.

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Meanwhile, the roughly 93,000 customers of the Navy water system are continuing to be advised not to drink the water. Those who smell fuel should not use it for bathing or other household uses.

In addition to military households, several public schools and businesses are served by the system.

Dr. Diana Felton, state toxicologist, said health impacts from petroleum products can be wide-ranging. That’s why it’s important to know what type of petroleum is in the water.

But she said that many of the health complaints from residents are consistent with petroleum exposure across the board. Those include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache and confusion.

While the cause of the problems remains under investigation, there’s intense scrutiny of the Navy’s underground Red Hill Fuel Storage Facility, which has had a number of leaks in the past.

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

So far, the contamination has only been detected in the Navy’s water system.

But Honolulu Board of Water Supply officials worry the problem could spread.

That’s because the underground water source that feeds the Navy’s well in Red Hill can also flow toward the Board of Water Supply’s wells in Halawa.

And when the Navy shut down its well on Sunday, the water board said it made it easier for potential contaminants underground to seep toward the city wells.

“That is not a good scenario,” said Ernest Lau, the Board of Water Supply’s chief engineer.

“If we keep pumping at a higher rate at the Halawa shaft and Red Hill is not pumping, if there’s any fuel in the ground water and it’s moving as a plume then we are going to potentially suck that fuel towards us at a faster rate,”

To prevent that, the water board cut by half what it pumps from those wells and is increasing testing.

A Navy spokeswoman had no immediate response to that concern.

Wayne Tanaka, state director for the Sierra Club of Hawaii, said the Navy isn’t being transparent enough with the public.

“Navy leadership throughout this whole thing has been disappointing to continually tell people that there’s no evidence of anything unsafe when you can literally see film on the water,” Tanaka said.

This story will be updated.

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