Navy officials reported to state leaders on Wednesday that they have identified the drinking water contaminant in the Navy’s Red Hill shaft as jet fuel and also have found additional contamination in a second nearby well, raising questions about whether contamination has spread beyond the neighborhoods currently identified by the Navy.

Separately, in a memo responding to an order from Gov. David Ige, U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro outlined several actions the Navy is prepared to take to address the water crisis. But he was silent on the governor’s order to drain the fuel from the Red Hill tank facility suspected of causing the problem.

Navy leaders told state and local officials on Wednesday that they detected “significant contamination” of JP-5, a type of jet fuel, in the Red Hill shaft.

The Red Hill well served hundreds of military families that have reported in recent days that their water smelled like fuel. Some said they were getting sick because of it.

Secretary of the US Navy Carlos Del Toro during press conference regarding the Red Hill Fuel petroleum water pollution held at CINPAC Command Center.
Secretary of the U.S. Navy Carlos Del Toro said earlier this week that he would view a shutdown order from the governor as a “request.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Navy officials also said they detected additional contamination in a separate Navy shaft in Halawa.

They said they detected 920 parts per billion of a substance known as “total petroleum hydrocarbons as diesel,” or TPH-d. The Hawaii Department of Health’s Environmental Action Level for TPH-d – the amount that DOH considers safe for drinking water and household use – is 400 parts per billion, according to the Honolulu Board of Water Supply.

“The level of this contaminant poses a public health threat, and is considered unsafe to drink,” Kathleen Ho, Hawaii’s deputy director for environmental health, said in a statement. “This news is concerning — especially as the cause of the petroleum release into the Navy’s water system remains unknown. We will continue to take all possible action to protect public health and the environment.”

The Navy’s Aiea Halawa shaft is one of three groundwater sources that provide drinking water to the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system, according to DOH. The contaminated sample was taken on Dec. 5, the department said. Hawaii health department personnel are scheduled to collect samples from the Aiea Halawa shaft on Thursday.

The Navy stopped using its Aiea Halawa shaft last Friday “out of an abundance of caution,” Mike Andrews, a spokesman for Navy Region Hawaii, said in an email. The Navy’s Aiea Halawa shaft is separate from the Honolulu Board of Water Supply’s Halawa shaft, where operations were halted on Dec. 2. BWS said its water is safe to use and drink. 

Hours after the Navy’s meeting with local and state officials, the Board of Water Supply shuttered its own Aiea and Halawa wells as a precautionary measure, according to spokeswoman Kathleen Elliott-Pahinui.

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.
As of Wednesday, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply stopped pumping from three of its facilities: the Halawa shaft, the Halawa well and the Aiea well. Honolulu Board of Water Supply

At the meeting, Navy officials expressed increasing confidence that the cause of the water contamination could be traced to two leaks at the Red Hill facility this year: On May 6, some 1,600 gallons of fuel spewed from a burst pipeline in the facility’s lower access tunnel, and some of it is believed to have leaked into the environment. And on Nov. 20, 14,000 gallons of water and fuel were released from a fire suppression line in a tunnel a quarter-mile downhill from a fuel storage facility.

Ige issued an emergency order on Monday requiring the Navy to get the matter under control and ultimately formulate a plan to “defuel” the facility. On Wednesday, Del Toro issued a memo outlining actions that would comply with some of Ige’s demands.

The secretary agreed to pause operations at the Red Hill facility, continue to isolate nearby wells until water meets federal standards and explore the construction of a drinking water treatment system at the Red Hill shaft. He also pledged to consult with a third-party expert to determine design deficiencies and develop a plan to conduct repairs.

The order also requires that the Navy drain its fuel storage tanks 30 days after completing corrective actions. Del Toro did not address that point.

Residents and activists protested the continued use of the Navy's Red Hill fuel tanks in November 2021. Pictured: Ann Wright with Veterans for Peace.
The Sierra Club, which has long protested the Navy’s fuel operations, praised Ige for ordering the facility to “defuel.” Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2021

“At all times, our efforts will remain centered on restoring potable water to affected communities, improving safety measures to the Red Hill fuel distribution system, and implementing mitigation measures to ensure a continued source of potable drinking water from the aquifer underlying the facility,” the secretary’s memo states.

Del Toro’s office did not respond to questions Wednesday.

Del Toro’s statement comes a day after the Navy informed the Hawaii Department of Health that it plans to contest Ige’s order. On Monday, the secretary said he would view a shutdown order from the governor as a “request.”

Asked about Del Toro’s memo, Kathleen Ho, Hawaii’s deputy director of environmental health, said the department appreciates the Navy’s pause in operations, but the entirety of the order still stands.

“DOH’s emergency order provides clear parameters to pause operations, treat contaminated drinking water and safely defuel the Red Hill underground storage tanks,” she said in a statement Wednesday evening. “DOH’s order also ensures that this framework remains in place until an independent assessment can ensure that appropriate actions are taken to protect human health and the environment.” 

While military families haven’t been a big part of the years-long effort to decommission the tanks, some have voiced support for Ige’s decision.

Lou Lindsay, a military wife and mother of four who lives in Radford Terrace, said she feels the Navy should follow Ige’s order. She said her family members have suffered intense stomach pains – “like a fire in our stomach” that required visits to the emergency room for herself and her son.

“I don’t understand how they can promise us safe drinking water and fight against an order the governor is trying to put in place to make sure that happens,” she said. “If they were genuinely honest in their intentions, they wouldn’t be fighting this order. Just do it.”

DOH has not announced a hearing date to discuss the Navy’s opposition to Ige’s order.

Separately, officials with the Navy, DOH and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply are scheduled to appear at a virtual meeting on Friday at 1:30 p.m. before the Hawaii Senate.

Unanswered Questions

The Navy this week published a map of areas that are supposedly impacted by the water contamination crisis. It includes Onizuka Village, Red Hill, Catlin Park, Halsey Terrace and Radford Terrace among other areas.

The Navy says the areas in Red reflect the communities affected by water contamination as of Dec. 6.
The Navy says the areas in Red reflect the communities affected by water contamination as of Dec. 6. U.S. Navy

However, some residents who live in areas not reflected on the map say they’re also experiencing problems with their water.

Rachel Walsh is among them. Her family lives in Makalapa, a community on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The Navy has not provided information about which wells serve which communities, so it’s unclear whether her family’s water comes from the Red Hill or Halawa shafts. 

Over a week ago, as complaints in the area started to bubble up, she noticed her home’s water smelled like gasoline. She’d already been suffering from abdominal cramping and aches in her legs for weeks, she said, as well as a persistent rash on her face. Walsh and her husband have both experienced dizziness. Her kids have had belly aches and difficulty swallowing over the last several months.

Rachel Walsh with daughter Sunny Walsh at their Makalapa residence. Walsh is holding a succulent that died after she watered the plant.
Rachel Walsh with daughter Sunny Walsh at their Makalapa residence. Walsh is holding a succulent that died after she watered the plant. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

With the help of the U.S. Army, Walsh’s family has since relocated to a hotel. In just the two days they’ve been there, she said symptoms have subsided.

“Yesterday when I woke up, I didn’t think I’d be able to stand because my abdomen was in so much pain,” she said. “And now I’m fine.”

Walsh said the Navy needs to acknowledge that people are suffering from water contamination outside of the areas indicated on its map.

“They need to stop saying only certain neighborhoods are affected,” she said.

The Navy did not respond to questions about the scope of the contamination on Wednesday. Navy officials have not released any maps or diagrams showing its water distribution system.

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