In the early days of the Red Hill water contamination crisis, the Navy opened fire hydrants and flushed contaminated water directly on to sidewalks and residential streets that rushed into storm drains and flowed into the ocean without the required state permits, according to residents and the Hawaii Department of Health.
On Friday, the Navy, Army, the DOH and the Environmental Protection Agency reached an agreement on a more stringent plan designed to ensure petroleum-laced water does not end up in the ocean.
The agreement came well after the Navy’s initial action, which the DOH says was illegal. But rather than sanctioning the Navy, the health department says it is focused on “resolving imminent threats to the public.”
The DOH said multiple laws protect water quality and natural resources.
As an example, DOH spokeswoman Kaitlin Arita-Chang referred to Hawaii Revised Statutes Chapter 342D-50, which prohibits the discharge of pollutants to state waters without a permit issued by the Director of Health.
“The DOH typically has the authority to take enforcement actions when there is a discharge of a pollutant to a storm drain system,” she said.
David Kimo Frankel, an attorney for the Sierra Club of Hawaii, said it’s much easier for the DOH to levy administrative penalties than criminal ones.
“It is more difficult to prove a ‘knowing’ violation than a ‘negligent’ one,” he said. “It is rare for DOH to pursue criminal penalties.”
‘I Smelled Gasoline Outside’
The week of Thanksgiving, residents reported gasoline-like odors near sinks and bathtubs. On Nov. 30, the Joint-Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Facebook page asked all residents within military housing areas to run the water for three to five minutes to “possibly alleviate the odor.”
But according to residents, the smell only intensified as they ran their sink and bath water. In addition to the individual flushing in each household, fire hydrants were opened directly onto neighborhood streets.
“The fire hydrants were being flushed for about an hour to an hour and a half down our street,” Aliamanu Military Reservation resident Abbi Sharpe said. “And then I even saw the guys try to clear some of the water that was collecting by sweeping it into the storm drains.”
Sharpe said that the men sweeping were not in uniform.
Another resident, Lindsay Ladnier, said she could smell the odor about 500 feet away from the flushing sites even after closing all her doors.
Halsey Terrace resident Laura Warfold said she first saw men in uniform flushing water from fire hydrants into the grass in her backyard on Nov. 29. When she asked the military personnel to stop, she said they provided her with a number to call and complain.
Catlin Park resident Jannen Sparks had a similar account. She noticed puddles with an oily sheen near a storm drain by her home.
“I can’t imagine what flushing into the sewage is doing,” she said. “I smelled gasoline outside.”
The DOH confirmed that the Navy illegally flushed contaminated water. Arita-Chang said the department sent the Navy an email providing flushing guidelines on Dec. 3.
As the Navy continued to violate guidelines over the following days, the DOH ordered the Navy to stop all flushing.
In general, discharges into any storm drain system are not authorized without the written consent of the owner of the storm drain. The Navy is required by the DOH to identify where the storm drain empties into state waters.
What Happened To The Ocean Water?
The DOH said it does not know how much contaminated water drained into the ocean during illegal flushing and has not conducted sampling or testing where the contaminated water was drained to date.
“Because the flushing was done without any planning or protocols in place to track water volumes, the DOH does not know how much went down storm drains,” Arita-Chang said. “As part of the protocol moving forward, DOH will take visual observations looking for impacts at ocean and any stream locations during discharge.”
Despite the lack of information and testing, the DOH said it has not observed negative impacts at the outfalls.
Surfrider Foundation spokeswoman Lauren Blickley said the organization is aware that contaminated water was released into storm drain systems, and criticized the Navy for apparently allowing fuel to end up in coastal and recreational waters.
“Fuel leaks and oil spills are known to have significant environmental impacts, including fish kills,” Blickley said. “The knowing release of contaminated water is irresponsible and environmentally negligent.”
While it’s difficult to predict the exact impacts of contaminated waters entering the ocean, Center for Biological Diversity Oceans Director Miyoko Sakashita echoed Blickley’s concerns and said that it could hurt marine wildlife and increase the accumulation of harmful chemicals up the food chain.
“We know from past experience with both fuel spills and oil spills, that petroleum breaks down into toxic components, and has impacts that can either cause death or harm the immune system of a broad range of animals,” Sakashita said.
“This interagency drinking water system team will ensure we stay tightly aligned as we step through the recovery process together,” Rear Adm. Blake Converse, Deputy Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said in a statement.
The plan maps out where flushing will take place, how much water will be released and requires treatment using methods such as diffusers and granulated activated carbon before it is discharged onto soil or into approved storm drains or permitted sanitary sewers.
The Navy must also make daily reports on flushing, notify all parties and affected residents and comply with water sampling.
The Navy did not respond to requests for comment.
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Lauren Teruya is a Poynter-Koch reporting fellow for Honolulu Civil Beat. She is a graduate of Iolani School and holds a master's degree in specialized journalism from the University of Southern California. You can reach her at email@example.com.