In worrisome development, new data shows trace amounts of jet fuel in military tap water

Mahealani Richardson explains UH's newly released data that shows trace amounts of JP-5 fuel in certain homes affected by Red Hill.
Published: Aug. 2, 2022 at 7:23 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 3, 2022 at 12:32 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In a concerning new development in the Red Hill water crisis, newly-released UH data appears to show trace amounts of jet fuel in several military neighborhoods both before and after they were given the all clear by the state.

University of Hawaii scientists detected fuel in Ford Island, Hickam and Red Hill Mauka tap water.

The scientists used a technology called fluorescence spectroscopy, which uses light to screen for potential fuel contamination. They’ve been testing the water quietly for months.

It’s the same testing used to monitor oil plumes during the Deepwater Horizon spill.

According to a recent report released to the community, the UH scientists continued to observe fluorescence spectra “resembling low concentrations of JP-5 in a small percentage of samples.”

The scientists added the assumption is that positive screening detection of potential jet fuel fluorescence is residual contamination from the fuel released into the Red Hill shaft and distributed through the Navy drinking water system late last year.

Many residents have been providing water samples to UH scientists since last November’s fuel spill. Pearl City Peninsula resident Davie-Ann Momilani Thomas was one. Her neighborhood showed a possible detection in May 2022 even though the state’s health advisory had been lifted.

“To see these results and have them come into our homes and do this with us was just like a big huge relief,” said Thomas. “I’ve been so thankful for them. I’ve kept them hidden for nine months.”

Wayne Tanaka, director of Sierra Club of Hawaii, said positive readings will occur “sporadically.”

“In some cases, you have a sample from a particular area that’s clean and then it will have JP-5 and then clean again,” he said.

In a news release Tuesday morning, UH announced the water data was up on a website.

There was even a news conference scheduled. But a few hours later, it was abruptly cancelled and the website was taken down.

The University of Hawaii says it was prematurely released by the Communications Department.

However, Hawaii News Now has learned that UH told stakeholders there were concerns about the dashboard raised by the Navy, EPA and state Health Department.

The news release mentioned the UH Red Hill Task Force, the new Tap Water Screening Dashboard and Tom Giambelluca, of UH Manoa Water Resources Research Center.

“This is an explosive piece of information that has repercussions that are going to last for a really long time,” said Kate Needham, a volunteer for the UH Red Hill Task Force.

“I have no doubt in my mind that lawyers who are assisting with lawsuits in this situation grasped on to this information very quickly,” added Needham, of Armed Forces Housing Advocates.

Another resident, Jamie Williams, also had water samples taken from her home at Red Hill after getting sick from the contaminated water last November.

“As early as Feb. 2, there was a positive from a sample collected from my home,” she said.

“We were then told to return to our homes on the 17th of February.”

Williams recalled having to go back home despite knowing that her home was contaminated with jet fuel. She said she was dealing with skin issues from the water that have since cleared since moving away.

“As late as May, my own home was positive which was consistent with some of the skin rashes and scalp sores that my husband and I were experiencing with contact with the water,” said Williams.

UH scientists said it’s possible they detected fuel below regulated levels and can’t comment on implications to human health and urged further testing.

Navy Region Hawaii disputed UH’s data.

“Since the Navy began long-term monitoring of its water distribution system on March 22, 2022, there have been no detections of JP-5 contamination in the system,” it said in a statement.

The state Health Department said UH’s testing method can produce false positives.

They added that biofilms commonly found in household plumbing is one of the many substances where the presence of fluorescence can be detected.

“DOH will continue to make decisions based on EPA-certified methods run at EPA-certified laboratories. Those certified tests continue to show that the Navy’s drinking water system meets EPA and DOH’s strict drinking water standards,” the statement added.

UH scientists said there was no fuel detected in samples from Board of Water Supply customers.

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