Hawaii Gov. David Ige and the state’s entire congressional delegation called on the Navy to immediately suspend operations at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility amid a water contamination crisis that has raised fears of broader problems.

The announcement came Sunday, a week after hundreds of military families living near Pearl Harbor reported that their water smelled like fuel and that many people had suffered serious health issues. Affected residents have complained of headaches, stomach problems, rashes and sores.

“Test results confirming contamination of drinking water at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam show that the Navy is not effectively operating the World War II-era facility and protecting the health and safety of the people of Hawai‘i,” said Ige, Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and Reps. Ed Case and Kai Kahele.

“We are calling for the Navy to immediately suspend operations at Red Hill while they confront and remedy this crisis,” they said in a joint statement.

Secretary of the US Navy Carlos Del Toro speaks to people as he leaves a town hall meeting at Hokulani Community Center.
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro speaks to people as he leaves a town hall at Hokulani Community Center. The meeting was to hear concerns about the Navy’s water contamination crisis on Oahu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

It was the firmest statement of concern yet from the state’s leadership after Navy officials on Thursday confirmed the presence of petroleum in the Red Hill shaft, which is just a half-mile from the Red Hill fuel storage facility.

The Navy said on Sunday evening that it was preparing a response to the demand from the governor and the congressional delegation.

Meanwhile, the military community, which includes active-duty service members, their families and civilians, remained in limbo. Hawaii’s Department of Health has advised the 93,000 customers of the Navy’s water system, which includes several public schools, not to consume the water.

Red Hill ‘The Most Likely’ Cause Of Contamination

The Red Hill facility was constructed in haste in the 1940s to provide fuel for war operations. Twenty fuel tanks, each larger than the Aloha Tower, have the capacity to hold 250 million gallons of fuel, and a system of pipelines uses the power of gravity to deliver that fuel to Pearl Harbor.

The whole system has a history of leaks and sits 100 feet above a drinking water aquifer that provides water to over 400,000 people.

In 2014, 27,000 gallons of fuel was released from one of the tanks, activating regulators who increased scrutiny and motivating activists to call for the shutdown of the facility. That release was followed by several others including two reported this year: one in May that released 1,600 gallons of fuel into the facility’s lower access tunnel and another in November that spilled 14,000 gallons of fuel and water into a tunnel a quarter-mile from the Red Hill shaft.

Rear Adm. Blake Converse said at a Sunday town hall-style meeting that one of those spills was likely the source of the contamination found in the well.

He later elaborated that officials were still working to confirm what happened.

“But the most likely place where it came from was fuel oil from a recent incident,” he told Civil Beat, adding that it could be the Nov. 20 release or the one that happened on May 6. “We’re trying to distinguish which that is.”

About 100 people attended the meeting, which was filled with emotional testimony from pregnant or nursing women worried about effects on their children and people confused about the process of moving into hotels as well as the overall health guidance from Navy officials.

Lauren Bauer asks a question at Hokulani Community Center Red Hill fuel town hall meeting.
Lauren Bauer asked a question at Hokulani Community Center town hall meeting about the water contamination. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Many described continued illnesses, hygiene challenges and the need for financial relief.

“I’m here to ask why you weren’t a wingman to protect my 13-month-old son when I was bathing him and when I was giving him a sippy cup full of water from my faucet when he has been throwing up for days on end,” said Lauren Bauer, an Air Force wife.

“At this point, I know your seat has been hot for a few days … but now I ask with all eyes and ears on you that you fix this and you fix it honestly. And for you to truthfully let us know how long we’ve been exposed so we can take precautions,” she said, tearing up.

More than 700 people have been temporarily moved into hotel rooms funded by the military until further notice.

“We have additional work to do to address your concerns and we recognize that,” Converse said after hearing several complaints about the way the situation had been handled.

“We recognize that the initial communications weren’t crisp, and they weren’t correct as we were diagnosing and getting through a consolidated understanding for the problem,” he added.

Residents also asked officials about a Honolulu Star-Advertiser report Sunday that stated the water samples taken by the Navy at its Red Hill well revealed petroleum contamination as early as July. The newspaper cited sample results posted by the state Department of Health last week.

Navy officials said that their test results show contamination within a limited timeframe, which they said is not expected to have long-term health effects.

“The water has not been contaminated since July based on the indication of the test result we have,” Converse said. When asked if he had read the article, Converse said, “I’m not familiar with the article that you’re referring to.”

Community Worried About Impacts

Concerns have spilled over into the broader community, which draws from the same aquifer as the Navy through different wells.

On Friday, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply preemptively shut down its Halawa shaft, which services 20% of the water for the area from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai, including urban Honolulu.

Chief Engineer Ernie Lau has expressed grave concern that the Navy’s contamination could migrate toward the public water source, but for now, BWS leaders say their customers’ water is safe to drink.

But the crisis has intensified calls for the Navy to shut down Red Hill after decades of concerns about pollution.

Demonstrators hold signs during a gathering at the Federal Building in opposition to the recent Red Hill US Navy fuel spill.
Demonstrators displayed signs on Friday to demand the permanent closure of Red Hill.  Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

On Sunday, the executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, an organization that has raised alarms for years about the threat Red Hill poses to Oahu’s drinking water, said he was glad Ige and others made a statement but isn’t sure how it helps the situation.

“We still have millions upon millions of gallons of fuel perched right above our aquifer,” Wayne Tanaka said in an email. “So much damage has already been done by this facility, and it can only get worse – unimaginably worse.”

The fuel needs to be relocated now, Tanaka said.

“Otherwise it will be like weʻve learned nothing from the ongoing catastrophe with Red Hill,” he said.

As for when the Navy will clean up its contamination, leaders said Saturday that there is no clear timeline.

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, who will participate in commemorations of the 80th anniversary of the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor, promised action, although he didn’t provide any specifics.

“I’m committed to doing what we need to do moving forward to fix this. We’ll do everything we can. I hear you loud and clear,” he said during the town hall.

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