Nearly a week after military housing residents began smelling fuel in their water, the Navy said Saturday that it has a clean-up plan but still cannot provide a “realistic timeline” for when water will be safe to drink again.

Rear Adm. Blake Converse said that the process of flushing the affected potable water system has begun along with aggressive sampling. That will be followed by tests to ensure the water is up to federal and state purity standards as well as an engineering analysis.

“We don’t have an answer today on a realistic timeline,” for when the water will be safe again, he said. “We have commenced flushing. We have gotten the expertise collected and we are developing that plan.”

Navy personnel assist residents with filling containers at Halsey Terrace Community Center.
Navy personnel assist residents with filling containers with potable water at Halsey Terrace Community Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Converse, the deputy commander for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said the plan would be submitted to the state Department of Health within the next 48 hours for approval.

“As that is submitted and approved we’ll have a better feel for what that timeline will look like,” he said during a live community update on Facebook.

The Army also has sent experts from its environmental command who have experience with similar problems as many other bases have suffered water pollution issues.

The Navy confirmed last week that petroleum products were detected in its Red Hill well, which provides drinking water to about 93,000 people, including service members, families and civilians living in military housing.

Converse stressed that the Navy stopped pumping from the Red Hill shaft on Nov. 27 after it began to receive complaints that the water smelled like fuel.

People have complained of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches and some skin concerns including burning, according to the Pacific Fleet’s chief medical officer, Capt. Michael McGinnis.

“There should be no lasting effects from that short-term exposure,” he said.

However, officials said a registry of people in affected areas would be maintained to track the situation going forward.

McGinnis reiterated previous guidance for people in the affected areas to avoid drinking the water or using it for daily activities like washing dishes and doing laundry. Potable water also was being provided for free at several distribution points.

The military also stepped up its efforts to help families by providing temporary lodging assistance that will allow those deemed eligible to move into hotels, both on base and in civilian areas. Converse said 800 rooms were available. The military also has set up centers to provide medical care and counseling services.

While there’s no indication that the pollution has spread, Honolulu’s Board of Water Supply on Friday shut down production at its Halawa water shaft, which provides 20% of the drinking water for the urban area, as a precaution since it draws from the same aquifer as Red Hill.

Officials say the city’s water is safe for now, although they urged customers to conserve water until more is known.

The state Department of Health’s investigation into possible effects on civilian areas has been complicated by the fact that water samples were damaged while being sent to a California lab for testing.

Four of the samples were damaged in transit and could not be tested, while the remaining two samples taken from Nimitz Elementary School and Pearl Harbor Elementary School tested negative for petroleum products, according to the DOH.

The DOH didn’t elaborate, but the analytical report from the Eurofins lab said that the container was broken upon arrival and there was “not enough bubble wrap.”

Quality journalism takes time.

A story that takes fives minutes to read often takes days to report.
Quality journalism takes time and resources to produce, but with support from readers like you, Civil Beat can investigate issues and publish stories that are otherwise difficult to fund.
Become a donor and help support Civil Beat’s next investigation.

About the Author