‘A man-made disaster’: Military’s response to tainted water crisis draws lawmakers’ ire

Lawmakers are questioning why it’s taking so long to get any definite answers about what’s in Navy’s drinking water that’s making people sick.
Published: Dec. 2, 2021 at 5:09 PM HST|Updated: Dec. 2, 2021 at 5:36 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Lawmakers are questioning why it’s taking so long to get any definite answers about what’s in Navy’s drinking water that’s making people sick.

State Sen. Glenn Wakai said residents demanded quicker testing at a town hall Wednesday.

“The response from the Navy was it’s cost prohibitive,” he said, at a news conference with other legislators Thursday. “But what’s the alternative? Class-action lawsuits from all of those people who are getting effected by the tainted water? And jeopardizing the drinking system for the entire island?

The Navy first notified the state Department of Health on Sunday that it was getting complaints from military households in the Pearl Harbor-Hickam area about a chemical odor in the water.

Samples were sent to the mainland almost immediately, but results from those tests still aren’t in.

On Wednesday, the Department of Health announced that preliminary testing performed at the University of Hawaii detected petroleum in the water.

Many say it’s absurd that after a large fuel spill in 2014 at the Red Hill underground storage facility that the Navy doesn’t have the capability to rapidly test drinking water here.

“Almost five days in with no answers,” said Honolulu City Council member Radiant Cordero.

On Thursday afternoon, Cordero joined lawmakers who represent many of the impacted communities to criticize both the Navy and the state Department of Health for an inadequate and slow response.


State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim said, “We need more proactiveness from the military as well as from the state department.”

State Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson agreed, saying the Navy should be doing more to get service members and the surrounding community greater access to clean water.

“More ability for hygiene services to live their lives. And better accommodation,” he said.

Lawmakers say that discussions are just now getting underway about how to help families. Among the ideas: Having area high schools provide shower facilities and providing hotel rooms.

Legislators say these solutions could have been part of emergency planning.

“I think the Navy has more than dragged their feet. They have lost their feet,” Wakai said. “They’re paralyzed in finding a solution to this problem. You know last night they were saying this is a natural disaster. I don’t think this is how we should look at this. It’s a man-made disaster.”

So far, it appears only customers of the Navy water system are affected, but the Board of Water Supply draws from that same aquifer.

Meanwhile in the nation’s capital, U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele on Thursday demanded answers from a top admiral, asking how petroleum got into the Navy’s drinking water.

“I’m bringing up Red Hill today because the Navy is currently experiencing a crisis of astronomical proportion in Hawaii,” Kahele said.

At the Armed Services Committee, Kahele asked what the military is doing to correct the situation.

“Logistically how would the draining of the facility work if we called for the shutdown of the Red Hill bulk storage facility? How long would it take? Where would you store the fuel? And what would draining the Red Hill Fuel tanks mean for the United States military,” Kahele asked.

Vice Admiral Rick Williamson responded, “As far as your questions go, sir, I would love to take them for the record and get back to you with an answer.”

The secretary of the Navy will soon be headed to Hawaii to directly oversee the military’s response. He was already scheduled to attend the Dec. 7 commemoration of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Navy officials locally had little to say Thursday.

When asked for an update, a spokesperson said the military is still awaiting the results of testing and “will release them as soon as possible.”

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