A day after the Navy said it had detected diesel in its Aiea Halawa well at levels more than double the state safety limit, the military backtracked on Thursday, saying the contaminated sample “did not come directly” from the well and the Navy does not believe the result proves the well is contaminated.

It was a reversal of what Navy officials told state and local leaders in a Wednesday afternoon meeting. They reported detecting a level of “total petroleum hydrocarbons as diesel,” or TPH-d, in the well at 920 parts per billion – a level the Hawaii Department of Health said is unsafe to drink.

The state Department of Health and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply expressed alarm that a second Navy well was contaminated with fuel. The Board of Water Supply even shut down two more of its own wells in response.

The Navy’s about-face has left the Board of Water Supply with a lot of unanswered questions, Chief Engineer Ernie Lau said Thursday at a press conference.

“If it’s not coming out of the shaft, where did the diesel come from?” he asked.

Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernie Lau fuel leak v2
Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernie Lau said the Navy needs to clarify its test results. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

In its press release, the Navy said it received “preliminary verbal results” of a sample on the Halawa portion of its distribution system on Wednesday and immediately notified DOH and other stakeholders, including the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Board of Water Supply.

“After reviewing the detailed results from the independent laboratory conducting the testing, the Navy determined that the sample was not from the Halawa well but from an off-service section of the water distribution system,” the Navy said. “This was subsequently reported to the Department of Health.”

The Navy didn’t respond to questions seeking more details.

The Navy has said its Aiea Halawa well has not been used since Dec. 3. A sample from that day, before the well was taken out of service, indicated that the water was safe, the Navy said. DOH did not respond to a request for comment.

Lau said the Navy needs to clarify its findings.

After the Navy reported contamination in its Aiea Halawa shaft on Wednesday, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply shuttered two of its nearby wells. 

“We cannot afford to repeat what the Navy’s customers are experiencing right now in the broader Halawa community,” he said.

In response to the confusion, U.S. Sen Brian Schatz called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step in and have a “more active role in addressing this crisis.”

“The EPA must be the lead agency in the collection, testing, analysis, and public communication for water quality of the Navy’s water system,” the Hawaii Democrat said in a statement.

“We can’t afford another day of the Navy and state and county agencies disagreeing on the basic question of whether the drinking water is safe,” Schatz added. “We need a trusted independent agency with deep expertise and a mission of environmental protection to take over.”

DOH and the Navy are doing additional water sampling, the Navy said. The Navy said it collected over 100 samples throughout its distribution system that continue to be shipped to the mainland for testing at certified labs.

“To date, the Navy has received results from 84 samples, and none of the results from the on-service water distribution system have indicated the presence of petroleum products at or near EPA or DoH limits,” the Navy said.

Experts Call On Navy To Release Full Test Results

Other than a single-page spreadsheet showing results from the Red Hill well, the Navy has not made the results of any of its testing public. The lack of transparency is a problem, according to experts in engineering and chemistry.

The public and outside experts need to be able to assess whether the Navy is doing the right kind of testing, according to Andrew Whelton, an engineer with Purdue University with expertise in water quality and public health.

Tim Walsh holds a bottle of water labeled ‘poison’ that was water collected after he and his wife smelled fuel odors while lilving in Makalapa Navy Housing.
Many military families say the Navy has come to test their water, but they haven’t been notified of the results. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Water testing isn’t a singular, comprehensive process that can show you every substance present in a sample, Whelton said.

Labs need to know which contaminants to test for or they won’t be detected, he said.

“If you don’t know the chemicals, there is no evidence-based way to make public health decisions,” Whelton said. “The only way we can get back to normalcy is finding out the truth so it never happens again.”

The testing information the Navy has shared also lacks specificity, Whelton said. Officials are using broad terms like TPH-g, which stands for total petroleum hydrocarbons (gasoline). Total petroleum hydrocarbons are “a large family of several hundred chemical compounds that originally come from crude oil,” according to the EPA.

Philip Price, a retired analytical chemist with experience working on water contamination, agreed, noting that the Navy’s report that there is JP-5, a type of jet fuel, in the Red Hill shaft is not sufficient.

“JP-5 is more than raw petroleum,” he said.

Various additives may be present in the jet fuel, he said. Knowing what those are will have implications for decontamination and public health responses. The Navy should explain its testing methods and procedures and share the specific results with the public, Price said.

“How did you decide it was jet fuel?” he said. “What evidence do you have? Who thought about it? What data did they look at?”

He added: “Everyone wants it fixed, wants it stopped. And the thing they need to focus on is defining and understanding what they’re up against. Until that’s clear, chances of success are limited.”

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