The threat of the Navy’s fuel operations contaminating Oahu’s drinking water has been known for years, but in that time no local, state or federal agency has established a lab that could quickly and precisely detect petroleum constituents in water samples. 

The void of such a capability was felt last week when 93,000 Navy water customers – including military families and civilians – had to wait five days for the Navy to confirm that there was petroleum in the Red Hill well from which they get their water. Water samples had to be sent to the mainland, officials said. 

Adding insult to injury, the Hawaii Department of Health announced on Friday that four of its six water samples collected on Nov. 29 were damaged in transit to California and couldn’t be tested.

The community’s inability to get immediate answers about water that community members said was sickening them is “absurd,” state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim said at a press conference last week. 

Senator Donna Mercado Kim speaks to media on the topic of the Red Hill water petroleum issue held outside the HSTA headquarters building.
Sen. Donna Mercado Kim said it’s unacceptable that there isn’t a local lab capable of detailed fuel contamination tests. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“They have so many people on the water system, and they cannot test the water on a timely basis?” she said. 

The warning signs were there in 2014, Kim said, when 27,000 gallons of fuel were released from a tank at the Red Hill fuel facility. That event sparked community outrage and increased regulatory oversight but not the creation of a lab. 

The facility has experienced numerous other problems throughout the years. That includes a leak of 14,000 gallons of fuel and water a quarter-mile from the Red Hill water shaft just days before people reported feeling ill in late November. Navy brass are now investigating that leak and its possible connection to an earlier leak in May, when 1,600 gallons of fuel burst from a pipe in the facility’s lower access tunnel.

And earlier this year, the state Department of Health’s Environmental Health Division determined Red Hill has not shown that it can operate in a way that is “protective of human health and the environment.” Separately, DOH fined the facility over $325,000 for violations discovered last year.

Despite the documented issues, neither state, local nor federal entities have invested in an on-island lab that would quickly notify them of contamination before they deliver water to thousands of residents. Navy Capt. James Meyer acknowledged at a town hall on Sunday that the military’s local testing can only detect parts per million, not the parts per billion that are necessary to detect whether water is safe for consumption. 

Navy Rear Adm. Blake Converse, deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said during a virtual town hall on Thursday that a local lab with those capabilities has not been a “cost-effective” option given the infrequent need for such a facility. 

State Sen. Glenn Wakai called that response “ridiculous.” 

“Considering the frequency of these spills, you would think that it would warrant having a specialized lab to look at and study the water,” he said. “What’s the alternative? The alternative is class-action lawsuits filed by all those people getting affected by the tainted water and jeopardizing the entire drinking system for this entire island.”

Rear Adm. Blake Converse has been hosting town hall meetings with concerned residents. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Military officials are now considering starting up a lab, but getting it certified would take time and wouldn’t shed light on the current problem, Converse said. 

The Hawaii Department of Health announced on Wednesday that a University of Hawaii lab had detected a petroleum product in a water sample from Red Hill Elementary School.

However, the amount and type of petroleum were not clear. The preliminary test was unable to produce specific enough results, according to DOH. 

In a statement, DOH spokeswoman Kaitlin Arita-Chang said there are a limited number of certified labs throughout the country that can perform total petroleum hydrocarbon testing for diesel, oil and gas to the detection level of parts per billion. That’s the level of specificity needed to assess compliance with state environmental standards, she said.

DOH has an agreement with the University of Hawaii to provide preliminary analyses of petroleum products, but the UH lab cannot detect parts per billion.

The department has requested assistance from the Environmental Protection Agency to access additional resources, Arita-Chang said, but she didn’t provide details. She added that DOH would welcome further investment in its state lab.

Rep. Sonny Ganaden said the Hawaii Legislature should look at providing funding. 

“I don’t think we have a choice,” he said.

Senator Glenn Wakai speaks to media regarding the recent Red Hill water petroleum issue press conference held outside the HSTA headquarters near Red Hill.
Sen. Glenn Wakai called the contamination a “man-made disaster.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply has also sent its water samples to the mainland for years. One challenge is the cost of the specialized equipment, said Erwin Kawata, a BWS program administrator. The machines cost in the range of $100,000 to $150,000, plus annual maintenance and calibration. Other costs include trained staff and a specialized facility.

“For private laboratories, if you’re not getting enough demand for those tests to cover the cost of doing the test, it’s not, from a business standpoint, economically feasible for them to maintain that local service,” he said.

For BWS to create its own lab is “certainly something we can consider,” he said. “But the cost to perform the analysis has to make sense.”

The results released by the Navy Thursday evening showed the presence of xylene, naphthalene and total petroleum hydrocarbons – all components of fuel that can impact human health. 

The Navy said the levels of the chemicals present in their sample fell below what the DOH would consider dangerous. However, the Navy has not explained why, given those results, so many families have reported serious health effects, including sores, rashes and aches. Some people have reported being hospitalized.  

Navy officials have also not specified where exactly the chemicals came from. The Navy and DOH say that’s still under investigation. 

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