WASHINGTON — Hawaii Rep. Kai Kahele demanded answers from a top Navy official Thursday about petroleum contamination in the drinking water at Red Hill on Oahu.

Kahele asked Vice Adm. Rick Williamson, who was testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, about how the Navy planned to respond to the crisis, which so far has resulted in almost 100,000 people being told not to drink tap water while federal, state and county officials scramble to respond.

“The Navy is currently experiencing a crisis of astronomical proportions in Hawaii,” Kahele said. “People are getting sick, animals are getting sick and our military families need answers. The island of Oahu needs answers.”

Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele holds up a bottle of water that he collected from a home near Red Hill and that he said smells of petroleum. Screenshot/2021

Kahele’s questions centered on the Red Hill fuel storage facility, a World War II-era fuel farm that he said currently contains 100 million gallons of fuel. The Red Hill fuel farm has a history of leaks, most recently a Nov. 20 spill of 14,000 gallons of fuel and water.

Kahele said he was on Oahu recently to visit with affected families.

One mother, whom he identified only as “Amanda,” invited him into her home to test the water for himself, which he said smelled of petroleum. She told him of her dog vomiting and both her children falling ill, including her son who experienced an unusual sore inside his mouth.

Just Thursday morning, Kahele said, Amanda texted him to say that she was forced to go to the emergency room at Tripler Army Medical Center overnight because of a headache and irritation inside her mouth that the doctor diagnosed as chemical burns.

To help drive his point home, Kahele held up a plastic water bottle filled with water that he said came from Amanda’s tap so that Williamson could see for himself what was happening in the community.

Vice Admiral Rick Williamson of the U.S. Navy. U.S. Navy

“If you smell this water you would know that there’s something wrong with this water,” Kahele said. “There’s a petroleum product in this water.”

One of Kahele’s central questions for Williamson was whether it was possible to have safe water while continuing to use the Red Hill storage facility, which the congressman, a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Air National Guard, acknowledged was critical infrastructure for the U.S. military in the Pacific.

If not, he said, he wanted to know what the Navy’s plan would be to drain the facility of the millions of gallons of fuel there and how it would be stored elsewhere.

Williamson said he was unprepared to respond to Kahele’s questions and would need to get back to him later. The vice admiral did say that the situation at Red Hill has the Navy’s “full attention” and that it was taking the crisis seriously.

“The health and safety of our sailors, their families and surrounding communities are of the utmost importance,” Williamson said. “We share your concerns. We are committed to find the facts, get the root causes and make the appropriate corrections to anything that we discover. You have our commitment to be completely transparent with the local government, local people, our sailors, our families and with this committee.”

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