Navy officials told state lawmakers on Wednesday that families who were displaced from their homes because of the Navy’s water contamination crisis may start to return as early as next week, but the Hawaii Department of Health has stopped short of such a prediction.

Navy Rear Adm. Blake Converse said residents will return after the Navy flushes the pipes throughout its water distribution system and in residences. The Navy will also test samples from 10% of the residences and local businesses for water safety, as well as all schools on the water system, he said.

“It’ll be completely flushed, and it will have the sample results complete and posted,” said Navy Rear Admiral John Korka, the commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command. “And also, we’ll need DOH to also lift the advisory that currently exists today.”

Rear Admiral Blake Converse speaks before a ‘photo op’ at the CINCPAC command center with left-right, Chief of Environmental Division US Army Garrison Hawaii, Sherri R. Eng N45 Commander, Navy Region Hawaii by direction of the Commander, Kathleen S. Ho, Deputy Director of Environmental Health, Hawaii Department of Health, and right, Ben Castellana, On Scene Coordinator, US EPA Region 9.
Rear Admiral Blake Converse said the Navy is currently flushing the system and testing for contamination. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Currently, the health department is advising all 93,000 Navy water customers not to drink the water and to only use it for other purposes if it doesn’t smell like fuel. More than 3,000 families have moved into hotels because of the crisis.

Asked if DOH concurs with the Navy’s assessment that military families could start safely returning to their homes next week, DOH spokesman Brooks Baehr responded via text: “We certainly have not said that.”

Despite the Navy’s stated timeline, it’s unknown whether families sickened after consuming petroleum-laced water will feel comfortable returning home.

Cheri Burness, who has been living in hotels for nearly a month with her two kids and dog, said she doesn’t plan to take the Navy at its word that homes are safe.

Cheri Burness has been living in a hotel room with her two kids and dog for nearly a month amid the Navy's water contamination crisis.
Cheri Burness has been living in hotels with her two kids and dog for nearly a month amid the Navy’s water contamination crisis. Hawaii News Now/2021

“I will never trust the Navy again,” she said. “They’re not even doing the bare minimum in my opinion, never mind what they should do.”

She noted that the U.S. Army has issued more stringent guidance than the Navy has. The Army has advised people to stop using their refrigerators and other appliances that use water, including coffee makers, and also recommends using only bottled water or water provided from trailers for cooking, dishwashing, cleaning and personal hygiene.

Burness questioned why the Navy isn’t advising the same and helping residents to replace contaminated appliances, hot water heaters and pipes.

My pots and pans that are metal still have residue on them,” she said. “How come (they’re saying) everything else in the house is safe? To me, they need to do a lot more.” 

During Wednesday’s briefing, state Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole asked Navy officials whether they are concerned about contamination leaching into the plastic pipes in the Navy’s water distribution system and contaminating any clean water that might run through it. 

Korka responded that the Navy will be doing “stagnation tests” that sample water that has been left to sit in pipes for 72 hours.

“I believe that the battery of tests that we are taking, the fact that we are involving all of the right agencies, the fact that we’re being very transparent and the fact that we know that we have to follow on testing – it gives me a very high degree of confidence,” he said.

“We would not be bringing people back into the homes, we would not be lifting that administrative order, if we did not have confidence that all the items that we were doing and looking at would not impose any form of risk to our people.”

Rear Adm. John Korka, commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command (NAVFAC), said displaced military families could return to their homes as early as the first week of January.
Rear Adm. John Korka, commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command, said displaced military families could return to their homes as early as the first week of January. U.S. Navy

Keohokalole also questioned why the Navy intends to test only 10% of residences before inviting people back into their homes. 

“The 10% is sort of a statistical determination based on past events, based on academia, based on the capacity of the existing labs that are in the United States, and then a confidence factor that we’re doing,” Korka said.

Sen. Kurt Fevella told Navy officials that his constituents in Iroquois Point have suffered from water contamination but were never offered hotel rooms. He said flushing the system is not enough to make it right. He called it “the bare minimum.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Pacific Fleet is investigating the cause of the contamination and is focused on two leaks that occurred this year. The Navy is also soliciting a third-party vendor to provide an assessment of the Red Hill fuel facility, Converse said. That contract should be awarded in January and work is scheduled to begin in April, he said.

Also in January, the Navy is anticipating the arrival of testing equipment so that water samples can be tested locally instead of sent to the mainland, Korka said. Water test results have been slow to come in because Hawaii lacks a testing facility to examine water contamination at the level of parts per billion.

The Navy is also working to decontaminate the Red Hill shaft, the drinking water source located a half mile from the fuel facility that was contaminated with jet fuel. Rep. Ryan Yamane noted that a remediation plan was slated to be completed by Jan. 3. Korka said the Navy will not meet that target. A plan is “in the final stages,” he said, but the Navy requires a permit.

“We want to be very deliberate, and we want to make sure that we have a unified effort,” Korka said.

You can watch the entire briefing below:

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