As residents of the military housing community near Pearl Harbor said their water still smelled of fuel, the Navy Tuesday encouraged them to run water to flush the system and said it would hold town hall meetings Tuesday evening.

And customers of the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system were still being advised by the state health department not to drink or use tap water if it smelled of fuel.

One resident, Kevin Aubart, said Tuesday that the smell is not as strong as it was on Monday, but is still noticeable.

We’re just trying to avoid using the water at all as much as we can,” he said.  

The Halsey Terrace Military Housing near Salt Lake.
Halsey Terrace and other military communities reported water problems. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The health department guidance was issued Monday evening after numerous residents reported foul-smelling water they believe has caused rashes, dizziness, sore throats and other ailments. The system serves approximately 93,000 people, Hawaii Department of Health Deputy Director Kathleen Ho said during a Tuesday press conference.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the state and the Navy were still awaiting the results of water sample tests sent to the mainland. Initial testing completed on-island was inconclusive, Ho said. And the source of the problem is still under investigation by DOH and the Navy, she said.

Approximately 200 residents have called a Navy hotline to request testing in the areas of Catlin Park, Halsey Terrace, Radford Terrace, Doris Miller, Moanalua Terrace and Ohana Nui, the Navy said in a press release. Even more reached out to Armed Forces Housing Advocates, a group that serves military families, which said it received 456 complaints from area households.

Ho said she believes the problem is isolated to Navy customers. The Navy and Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which provides water to civilians, use different pumps and distribution systems to deliver water.

Board of Water Supply Ernest Lau points to areas near the Navy's 20 fuel tanks below Red Hill by the black dot looking things below his left hand during EPA teleconferenced meeting with the BWS board. 28 june 2016
Customers of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply (whose director Ernie Lau is pictured) should not be affected, according to the health department. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

However, both systems tap the same aquifer, and the Board of Water Supply has long maintained that fuel contamination can migrate, possibly toward BWS wells. The Navy has said that it believes the fuel would move toward the ocean, not across the Halawa valley toward BWS’s nearest well.

The BWS said in a statement on Tuesday that it hasn’t received any complaints from customers and is closely monitoring the Navy’s situation. The agency said it is increasing the frequency of its testing – from quarterly to monthly – and that the most recent test of the Halawa shaft in October showed no evidence of fuel in the water.

On Monday, residents complained about what they perceive as a lack of guidance from the military and, later on, conflicting information from the Navy and the state health department. Throughout Monday, a health department employee’s email to a resident advising against drinking the water was circulating online, and DOH only announced that message more widely on Monday evening. Meanwhile, the Navy was still saying there was no reason to believe the water was unsafe.

On Tuesday, Ho said DOH didn’t act more quickly because “we wanted to act in a reasonable, rational, and conservative way.”

Meanwhile, elected officials are expressing concern about the situation and the response by state and federal officials.

In a joint statement, Hawaii’s congressional delegation said it was troubled by news of potential water contamination followed by “a slow, inadequate response.”

“The Navy must act immediately and do everything it can to expedite the testing being done on the mainland to determine any risks to the drinking water,” the members said.

“It also needs to ensure that residents in all affected areas have access to safe drinking water until the Navy and state regulators can assure the public it is safe. We also expect clear and consistent communication with the public about all matters, but particularly those that impact health and safety.”

Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and Reps. Ed Case and Kai Kahele said they met with Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro on Tuesday to discuss concerns about the Navy’s fuel operations.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case and his colleagues in Congress said they expressed concern to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro on Tuesday. Screenshot/2021

“The Navy owes the community straightforward communications on all events that occur at Red Hill and a commitment to address concerns with the Red Hill infrastructure no matter the cost,” they said.

“Given the resources and engineering expertise available to the Navy, we made it clear that there is zero tolerance for endangering the health and safety of the public or the environment.”

State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, who represents the area where the Red Hill fuel tanks are located, said she was “very disappointed” in the Department of Health and the Navy for what she called “a lack of transparency and accountability in distributing timely information.”

“The conflicting information released by both agencies is frustrating and has caused much confusion and distress for residents in my district, many of whom are being affected by this potential contamination,” she said.

“Public health and safety must remain a top priority and I strongly urge DOH and the Navy to distribute accurate information to the public as soon as possible.”

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
 
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
 
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.

About the Author