Honolulu officials want residents to conserve water as city officials work to prevent the petroleum contamination affecting 93,000 people who rely on the Navy’s water system from spreading into the broader urban area.

City officials shut down a major water source late Thursday after Navy officials confirmed that the drinking well serving Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam was contaminated with petroleum.

Ernie Lau, chief engineer at the Board of Water Supply, urged Honolulu residents to avoid wasting water and to report any water main breaks and other leaks quickly. 

“It’s critically important that everybody use only what they actually need,” Lau said at a press conference.

Military personnel, family members and other residents who receive water through Navy wells were told earlier this week to stop drinking it after they started smelling and tasting fuel in the water, and some families reported getting sick. 

The Navy confirmed that petroleum products were detected in its Red Hill well, but the source of the contamination remains unknown and the investigation is ongoing.

 

Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernest Lau speaks to media about update on shutting down the Halawa well due to the fuel leak.
Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernest Lau speaks to media about shutting down the Halawa shaft due to the fuel leak. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Lau said Honolulu residents shouldn’t panic because there’s no indication non-Navy drinking water has been contaminated. Testing is still underway.

“It does not contain hydrocarbons or any other petroleum contaminants, and we will keep it that way,” he said.

But the city shut down its Halawa shaft because it draws from the same aquifer as the Navy’s Red Hill well. The Halawa shaft typically provides 20% of the water consumed in Oahu neighborhoods stretching from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai — about 400,000 people.

The decision puts stress on other water pumping stations, increasing the risk that salt water might seep into the aquifer. The Board of Water Supply is conducting extra monitoring to address that possibility. 

Lau said the agency has upped testing of five wells nearest to the contaminated Navy well to once a week in response to residents’ concerns. Previously testing was done quarterly. 

The chief engineer grew emotional at the press conference as he described the threat to the city water supply, and reiterated his multiyear request for the Navy to relocate the jet fuel tanks that sit just about 100 feet above the drinking water aquifer. 

He reiterated his desire for the Navy to relocate the storage tanks from Red Hill, a 78-year-old storage facility with a long history of leaks, including 27,000 gallons in 2014. 

“We cannot wait any longer,” Lau said. “Our water resource is precious.” 

The Board of Water Supply has for years been concerned about fuel contamination in the groundwater surrounding the Navy fuel tanks, at times urging the Navy to better track the location of the plume to ensure it didn’t migrate to where drinking water was being pumped. 

Lau said a recent leak wasn’t far from the Navy’s infiltration gallery that collects water for the Navy pumping station at Red Hill.

Information Challenges

There’s a lot that’s still unknown. Lau said the Board of Water Supply wants more data from the Navy about what they’re finding. 

So far, the Navy has been sharing information at town halls for residents affected by the water crisis but hasn’t held any press conferences.

At Thursday night’s town hall, the Navy shared a summary of its testing findings.

“We want to see a complete laboratory report,” Lau said. “We want to see the full report rather than a summary in an excel spreadsheet.” 

The Board of Water Supply also has questions about how the Navy’s testing was conducted. 

The Navy’s Nov. 29 sampling occurred a day after the Red Hill shaft had been shut down for a day, which Lau said may have affected the samples. City officials are also concerned about why some samples showed no indication of petroleum when residents receiving Navy water say they can smell fuel in their water. 

Lau said information from the Navy was minimal at the beginning of the week, but then Navy officials agreed to a meeting and plan to have weekly meetings with the Board of Water Supply.

Political Pressure 

The unfolding crisis has drawn the attention of Hawaii’s congressional delegation who issued a joint statement late Friday saying “it is clear that the Navy has failed to manage its fuel operations” to a standard that protects Hawaii residents’ health and safety. 

“The Navy must immediately identify, isolate, and fix the problems that have allowed the contamination of the drinking water at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam,” the statement said. “That includes a wholesale change in an organizational culture that has allowed too many accidents to occur without any accountability.”

The Congress members also asked that Gov. David Ige request President Joe Biden to declare an emergency to help families affected. 

U.S Sen. Mazie Hirono held a press briefing on Friday in Washington. Hirono said she talked with a number of constituents who drank the tainted water, including one woman she described as being 18 weeks pregnant with a high risk pregnancy.

“She’s terrified that the petroleum exposure might impact her unborn child,” the Hawaii Democrat said. “It took too long for the Navy to take this matter seriously.”

Hirono said the delegation’s main concern is getting safe drinking water to the community, but she also wants to hold the Navy accountable.

“These incidents are not isolated, nowhere near that,” she said.

Hirono is the chair of the Senate Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee, which oversees the Navy, but she provided few specifics about what exactly she and the rest of Hawaii’s delegation could do to address the history of fuel leaks at Red Hill.

She did say that the delegation has asked the Department of Defense inspector general to launch an investigation into the Navy’s operations at Red Hill after Civil Beat reported about military officials trying to cover up a January fuel leak into Pearl Harbor.

The findings from that probe, Hirono said, could influence future decisions, including whether there needs to be a discussion about removing and relocating the fuel farm.

Hirono said at that point “all options are on the table.”

Civil Beat reporter Nick Grube contributed to this story. This is a developing story. Refresh this page later for more updates.

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