As officials wait for answers about the source of petroleum contamination in the water near Red Hill, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply is pumping water from one of its wells, the Halawa shaft, at half the rate it normally does as a “precautionary measure,” the agency said on Wednesday.

The water board typically pumps 10 million gallons per day from the Halawa shaft, which provides water to over 400,000 people from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai – over 20% of the water for the area.

As of Wednesday, it was pumping at a rate of 5 million gallons per day. 

Navy personnel assist with filling water containers at the NEX parking lot after military housing residents noticed foul smelling odor from their tap water.
The Navy has been offering military housing residents free water until it addresses possible contamination in the tap water. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The move shows that the island agency in charge of delivering clean water to metropolitan Honolulu and beyond is taking seriously the possibility that the island’s drinking water could be at risk. 

“Right now, it almost looks like a disaster unfolding before our eyes,” Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau said.

The Board of Water Supply slowed its pumping amid reports that military housing residents are being sickened by water that smells like fuel and after the Navy stopped pumping at its own Red Hill shaft on Sunday. 

On Wednesday, the Hawaii Department of Health announced that preliminary testing detected petroleum in a water sample from Red Hill Elementary School but said details and the source of the problem are still under investigation. 

Without the announcement of an official cause, residents have wondered whether their symptoms are connected to a 14,000-gallon spill of fuel and water from a pipeline a quarter-mile downhill from the Red Hill fuel facility on Nov. 20. The World War II-era fuel farm is made up of 20 massive tanks and a system of pipelines, and the Red Hill water shaft is located a half-mile away. 

The Red Hill shaft, which provides water to the military communities pictured in the lower left section of this map, is located a half mile from the Red Hill fuel tanks. The Halawa shaft is just westward across the valley.
The Red Hill shaft, which provides water to the military communities pictured in the lower left section of this map, is located a half mile from the Red Hill fuel tanks. The Halawa shaft is just west across the valley. Honolulu Board of Water Supply

While BWS and the Navy have separate distribution systems, they rely on the same drinking water aquifer – like two straws drinking from the same glass. 

With pumping at Red Hill halted, BWS was concerned that its Halawa shaft might suck potentially contaminated water across the valley into its delivery system. 

Water level studies have shown that pumping at wells on one side of the valley affect the levels on the other side, according to Erwin Kawata, the Board of Water Supply’s program administrator. 

“So if contamination has gotten into Red Hill shaft, to the degree that it affects the taste and odor of the water and the safety of the water, and if they stop pumping and we continue to pump at a high rate, we’re actually hastening the movement of the fuel across the valley,” Lau said. 

The Navy did not respond to a request for comment.

Illustration of Oahu water sources Board of Water Supply
Navy and civilian water drinkers are serviced by the same aquifer. Honolulu Board of Water Supply

However, military officials have stated in the past that they believe any contamination at its Red Hill facility would travel towards the coastline, not across the valley. The Navy submitted a groundwater flow model report with its conclusions to regulators almost two years ago, and the Board of Water Supply has disputed its findings. 

“That report basically says the water only flows from the mountain down to the sea, that there is no cross-valley contribution,” Kawata said. “We disagreed with that.” 

The Hawaii Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are still assessing the arguments and haven’t issued opinions on which party they think is correct, Kawata said. Lau said he’s expecting regulators to issue a response by the end of the year. 

But the time to act is now, Lau said.

“The latest chain of events that have occurred only in the last few months are pretty alarming,” Lau said. “Quick action is needed to protect the water resources and the safety of our drinking water. We can’t really delay action anymore.”

Contamination Could Happen Without Warning

As of now, there is no evidence indicating that the water at Halawa is contaminated, according to BWS. 

However, if there were such evidence, the public might not find out about it until it’s too late, Lau and Kawata said. 

The monitoring wells that would raise alarms are managed by the Navy. The military provides testing results to the Hawaii Department of Health, which posts them online. But the results are made almost useless by months-long delays, Lau said. The most recent results are from May. 

“We need timely information to adjust our actions,” Lau said. “Six months later is way too long. And it’s been that way for years.”

Halawa shaft BWS red hill impact
The blue lines indicate the areas serviced by the Halawa shaft, from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai. Honolulu Board of Water Supply

Asked about these delays on Wednesday, Kathleen Ho, the health department’s deputy director of environmental health, said she didn’t have an answer. 

The Board of Water Supply has been doing its own water testing, which has consistently come up clean. However, it’s not real-time testing. It has been done on a quarterly basis, with the last one completed in mid-October. Test results typically take 30 to 45 days to come in because there aren’t any labs on-island with the ability to test to the necessary level of specificity, Kawata said. 

In a scenario in which the Navy failed to notify BWS of major contamination and BWS’s testing didn’t catch it right away, Kawata acknowledged it is possible that contaminated water could reach people’s faucets before the agency could stop it — though he described that as unlikely.

Lau said that’s why it’s so important for the Navy to provide early detection data.

Honolulu Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernie Lau said he is "extremely concerned" about the possibility of fuel reaching the drinking water in BWS's Halawa shaft.
Honolulu Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernie Lau said he is “extremely concerned” about the possibility of fuel reaching the drinking water in BWS’s Halawa shaft. Screenshot: Fuel Tank Advisory Committee

“These monitoring wells are like the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “It tells us what’s potentially heading our way.” 

The Board of Water Supply has been alarmed for years about the chance that the U.S. Navy’s fuel operations at Red Hill could leak fuel into the water supply. 

Intense scrutiny of the facility really started in 2014 when one tank leaked 27,000 gallons of fuel. After that event, which caused public outrage, the Navy entered into an administrative order on consent, or AOC, with regulators. 

At that point, the water board started doing weekly testing, but over time reduced it to monthly and then quarterly, Kawata said. 

“We haven’t detected any petroleum constituents in the water,” he said. 

Since 2014, fears of contamination have only intensified and calls to have the tanks removed have grown louder. The Navy has been under particular fire in recent months, accused of misleading regulators and giving false testimony to the health department. The military is also facing investigations related to the facility. Through it all, the Navy’s application to continue operating the Red Hill facility hangs in the balance. Health Director Libby Char will ultimately make the call.

While activists have been calling for Red Hill’s closure for years, more public officials have recently joined in.

On Wednesday, Honolulu City Council Chair Tommy Waters and Councilwoman Radiant Cordero introduced legislation that would outlaw the use of large underground fuel tanks whose operators cannot demonstrate that the tanks will not “leak any regulated substance into the environment during its operating life.”

And in a group statement, several state and city legislators said the increasing frequency of Red Hill fuel leaks and related community impacts “demand immediate attention and action by the Navy and a clear change of course.”

Residents and activists protested the continued use of the Navy's Red Hill fuel tanks in November 2021. Pictured: UH professor Kyle Kajihiro
Residents and activists, including University of Hawaii professor Kyle Kajihiro, protested the continued use of the Navy’s Red Hill fuel tanks last month. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2021

In response to recent concerns, the Board of Water Supply decided to return to testing monthly. As of Tuesday, the agency was awaiting the arrival of a kit to test Halawa shaft and planned to order expedited results from a lab in Monrovia, California. 

“We’re going to try to get some results before the end of next week,” Kawata said. 

Meanwhile, with its own water source in question, the Navy issued an emergency request to the Board of Water Supply on Tuesday morning asking to use some of its water to service the military, Lau said. 

The request did not specify how much water the Navy needs nor how long it is needed, Lau said.

Lau is not in a rush to comply. In response, he said he asked the Navy for a briefing and for a copy of its request in writing. 

“We have an obligation to maintain providing safe, dependable and affordable water service to our existing water customers, the public that we serve,” he said. “They have a lot more resources than we do, and their budget is much bigger than ours.” 

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