The Navy said it’s still working on a concrete plan for how to get rid of water contaminated with petroleum products after being ordered by the Department of Health to stop earlier flushing efforts.

During a Tuesday walk-through of an unoccupied home on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Navy officials said one option being considered is flushing the contaminants into the sewage system, which they said “has the capability of handling those kinds of waste.” 

“The sewer system has some capacity for handling that additional volume that we expect to deal with, but there may be some options that are more appropriate,” Lt. Cmdr. John Daly told reporters.

According to Navy officials, the City and County of Honolulu handles a portion of the sewage system from Red Hill, Aliamanu Military Reservation and the eastern housing community.

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Purdue University Professor Andrew Whelton PhD speaks to media at an unoccupied military house located at 4171 Finch Street.December 14, 2021
Purdue University Professor Andrew Whelton explains how families may flush the water in their own homes as part of a preliminary plan being developed by the military. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The tour came about two weeks after residents began complaining that they smelled fuel in their water. Many said they had symptoms including headaches, stomach pains, rashes, sores and vomiting.

Earlier this month, the Navy confirmed it had detected high amounts of petroleum products in its Red Hill well, which it ceased operating. The Navy also suspended use of a massive fuel storage facility that sits about 100 feet above the aquifer that supplies both the military housing and much of urban Honolulu.

The Board of Water Supply also turned off its Halawa water shaft as a precaution, although officials have said the city’s drinking water is safe.

Meanwhile, hundreds of families were forced to evacuate their homes and move to hotels on the military’s dime or remain at home with stacks of bottled water.

To date, the DOH has received more than 400 complaints from residents living near the Red Hill well.

During the walk-through, members of an advisory team from Purdue University demonstrated how residents will be able to flush out their water system through household appliances, such as water heaters, refrigerators and water faucets.

The team said people should empty the water through a hose and into a bucket. But Professor Andrew Whelton, professor of civil environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue, said it’s not yet known where those buckets will go.

“This flushing protocol is kind of like refreshing your plumbing,” Whelton said. “That’s exactly what’s going to be done in these homes.”

The Navy plans to fly in 21 filter systems known as “granular activated carbon filtration systems” from the mainland, which will be used to flush out outside distribution systems like fire hydrants. Daly said the filters will be flown via commercial or military aircraft. 

The filter systems will be used to scrub contaminants in the water. Discussions on where the contaminants will go are still underway. Navy officials said they’re considering redistributing the filtered water to land applications like sprinklers or storm drains but also stressed that they’re working on a plan with the DOH.

Navy officials said that these systems might be here by the end of the week.

Earlier this month, the Navy commenced flushing, but according to the DOH, the Navy didn’t adhere to the guidelines provided. The DOH sent the Navy a directive to stop flushing, and it did so on Friday.

“We have since heard their concerns and are working toward a solution with them right now,” Daly said. 

DOH spokeswoman Kaitlin Arita-Chang said the department has not approved a plan for flushing water lines. 

“We are collaborating with the EPA and other stakeholders to review proposals to ensure any activity is protective of public health and the environment,” she said in an emailed statement. 

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