They went toe to toe with the Navy on Red Hill. And they’re prepared to do it again
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Red Hill disaster is unprecedented in U.S. history for its size and scope. Jet fuel contaminated a water system that serves 93,000 users. Thousands were sickened.
The state Health Department confirms the crisis has no analogue.
Never before has jet fuel contamination to a water system triggered a disaster of this magnitude.
Now, one year after the crisis began, state Health Department workers are speaking out for the first time about how the emergency impacted them — and how they pushed back against the military.
In the days following Thanksgiving 2021, state health workers say, they were overwhelmed with calls of complaints. They even got calls from the Poison Control Center.
We know now the toxin in their water was jet fuel from the Navy’s Red Hill fuel tanks.
The first calls came into the Department of Health over Thanksgiving weekend.
That first day — Nov. 28, 2021 — there were 143 calls, which spiked to 400 calls per day.
“They were saying, you know, there’s a chemical odor in my water or I’m getting sick. I’m tasting something in my water,” said Liz Galvez, DOH on-site coordinator.
“It was hard to believe,” she continued.
Galvez went to Red Hill Elementary to investigate the chemical complaints.
“I put oil in my car. I know what that smells like and to smell that, you know, from the tap. I mean, that to, me, it was very surreal,” she said.
Dr. Diana Felton, state toxicologist, was back at the lab as the crisis unfolded.
“I was here frantically trying to understand what kinds of health impacts we might expect from people drinking water, which has fuel in it,” Felton said.
But her search came up empty.
Also in this series:
- Red Hill, One Year Later: A look 140 feet underground ― at a pristine water source at risk
- Fuel-tainted water sickened her family. Now this service member is fighting back
- Her 4-year-old was diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder. She blames Red Hill
- TIMELINE: A year ago, Red Hill fuel disaster upended the lives of thousands of Hawaii families
A jet fuel spill from underground storage tanks into a drinking water system had never happened before.
“There’s no historical models, We’re kind of working blind,” she said.
She says thousands of military and civilian families were suffering from sudden illnesses.
On Nov. 29, 2021, the state Health Department put out a “do not drink” advisory for those on the Pearl Harbor drinking water system.
But the U.S. Navy fought back.
“We got a lot of pushback from the Navy, who at the time was still convinced that it was a very small area that was affected, but we insisted on making the advisory for the whole system,” Felton said.
State regulators refused to back down, saying they had to protect as many people as possible.
“I’ll be honest to date that’s one of the things in my professional career that I’m most proud of,” said Kathleen Ho, deputy director of Environmental Health.
Ho visited the Navy’s Red Hill shaft on Dec. 5 with the state health director and their emergency responders. They were there to collect samples — and see the catastrophe for themselves.
“I never thought in my life that I would see petroleum floating on my drinking water,” she said.
That same day, after an emergency meeting with Gov. David Ige, the state of Hawaii ordered the Navy to defuel the underground Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Tanks.
“It sealed it for us,” Ho said, “that something really had to be done and it had to be done right away.”
After the Navy flushed and filtered the water, the state Health Department Navy declared the water from the Navy line safe to drink and lifted its final advisory on March 18.
Today, the Navy gets its water from a different source. It’s also working to drain fuel and permanently shut down its Red Hill fuel tanks. For state health workers, the fight for clean drinking water and healthy lives isn’t over. “I would fight them if they want to put any more fuel in those tanks,” Ho said.
Galvez added: “It’s certainly been a difficult year. But we can’t let up. We’re certainly not done.”
As part of a special series, “Red Hill: One Year Later,” Hawaii News Now is taking an in-depth look at an environmental and public disaster whose impacts continue to be felt. See more coverage here.
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