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Navy ‘confident’ that it’s found source of fuel leak into water system, but lawmakers are skeptical

Published: Dec. 10, 2021 at 1:19 PM HST|Updated: Dec. 10, 2021 at 5:47 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Samples collected by the state Health Department earlier this month at the Navy’s Red Hill water shaft found petroleum levels 66 to 350 times higher than the limits considered safe for drinking water, the state announced Friday.

The results were the latest worrisome development in the contaminated water crisis, which has left dozens sick, displaced at least 3,000 families and prevented thousands more from using their tap water.

Meanwhile, Navy officials said during a legislative briefing Friday they believe they’ve found the source of the contamination ― a spill on Nov. 20 at a fire suppression system downhill from Red Hill and not the underground fuel tanks that have been the source of a number of leaks in recent years.

“The Navy is responsible for this crisis,” Adm. Samuel Paparo, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, told lawmakers. “We are taking ownership and we are going to fix it.”

CONTINUING COVERAGE:

At the briefing, U.S. Pacific Fleet Deputy Commander Blake Converse said Navy tests have confirmed the petroleum in the Red Hill shaft is jet fuel from a relatively new spill.

He said they believe “with a high degree of confidence” that the contamination is from the Nov. 20 spill of jet fuel from a fire suppression drain line in the tunnel downhill of the Red Hill bulk fuel storage tanks. The Navy has said that 14,000 gallons of fuel and water were released in that incident.

Eight days after the spill, military families first started reporting a bad smell and taste in the water. Some said it made them sick, and the Health Department has gotten 600 complaints so far.

Converse stressed they don’t think the fuel is from the underground Red Hill fuel tanks.

In response to those claims, lawmakers expressed skepticism, saying they wanted confirmation about the source of the fuel from the state Health Department and EPA.

The state Health Department says the cause of the leak remains under investigation.

“The Navy, frankly, lately hasn’t given us a lot of reason to trust them so I think we all feel that we want an independent agency to come in and verify,” said House Environment Chair Nicole Lowen.

State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim added, “It’s hard to trust anything they say.”

Navy officials on Friday also outlined plans to flush the Navy’s water system, empty the Red Hill water shaft and conduct regular sampling.

Previously, the Navy confirmed it had found petroleum in the Red Hill water shaft, but did not release specifics. The Health Department also previously confirmed petroleum in the Navy’s Aiea-Halawa shaft.

But the latest results are the most dramatic to date, underscoring the scale of the contamination in a main drinking water source for the Navy’s system. The Red Hill shaft remains shut down.

The state also said Friday that its tests confirmed trace levels of petroleum in water samples from the Aliamanu Child Development Center and at homes at the Aliamanu Military Reservation.

Health Department officials said the samples were collected Dec. 5 and analyzed at a lab in California.

  • Samples from the Red Hill shaft contained total petroleum hydrocarbons diesel range organics (TPH-d) that were 350 times the DOH “environmental action level” for drinking water.
  • Officials said the lab found 140,000 parts per billion of TPH-d in the Red Hill sample. The DOH safe limit for the substance is 400 parts per billion.
  • The Red Hill shaft samples also tested positive for gasoline range organics (TPH-g) more than 66 times the safe levels set by the state Health Department.
  • Samples collected at the Aliamanu Child Development Center tested positive for trace levels of oil range organics that were under the threshold for drinking water to be considered unsafe.

Those on the Navy water system are being told not to use the water for drinking, cooking or oral hygiene. Navy water system users who smell fuel should also not use it for household chores.

The contamination has been linked to dozens of illnesses among those who live in homes served by the Navy’s system, including hospitalizations.

The Board of Water Supply is also watching the issue closely and has shut down several wells in a bid to protect against contamination in the public system.

This story will be updated.

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