Test results by the Hawaii Department of Health are providing few answers about the contamination of the Navy’s drinking water after several samples were damaged in transit and couldn’t be tested.
Late Friday, DOH said it received results from two sets of samples it sent to the mainland for analysis. Neither provided much insight into the crisis in which hundreds of Pearl Harbor area residents this week reported their water smells like fuel. Many families have been sickened after drinking and bathing in the water, with symptoms including headaches, stomach pains, rashes, sores and vomiting.
Two samples taken from the Red Hill shaft for routine testing on Nov. 24, prior to widespread public complaints, suggest a “trace amount of heavy oil,” a DOH press release said. But the levels were below drinking water safety thresholds and were not clearly related to petroleum fuel, DOH said.
The second set of samples was collected on Nov. 29, after residents started complaining of fuel-like odors in their water.
Six samples were collected and transported to Eurofins Scientific, a lab in California. However, four of the samples were damaged in transit and therefore could not be tested, DOH said. The department did not provide details about how that happened.
The remaining two samples were taken from Nimitz Elementary School and Pearl Harbor Elementary School and tested negative for petroleum products.
“DOH has not received enough results from water sampling to determine if the tap water is petroleum-free,” the department said. “DOH continues to collect samples.”
The health department said it has received 494 complaints from Navy water system users since Monday. The Navy says it has received nearly 1,000.
“We have an ongoing command investigation to determine how this happened and what we’re going to do to fix it and make sure it’s not going to happen again,” Rear Adm. Blake Converse, the deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said Friday at the latest in a series of town hall-style meetings.
For now, officials say the water delivered to customers of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply is safe. The agency urged customers on Friday to conserve water as it assesses the situation.
Navy Under Pressure To Provide Answers
Military housing residents have expressed anger and betrayal after nearly a week of fear and uncertainty over the water supply as they have been forced to rely on bottled water and showers in gyms and other external locations.
Many complained during the meetings that the Navy failed to keep their families safe and initially downplayed the possibility that they were in danger. Many are also wondering how long this crisis will last and how the Navy is going to pay for the costs they’re incurring for water.
One military wife, who said her husband is deployed, asked officials on Friday how she could ever trust the Navy again.
“Everything my life has stood for has been shaken and disrupted and destroyed while my husband is under the ocean thinking that the Navy is here taking care of me and his two children,” she said. “And all I get is lies, day after day after day.”
In the absence of answers about the cause of the contamination, public attention has turned to what many consider the most likely culprit: the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.
The World War II-era facility is made up of 20 massive underground tanks with a total capacity of 250 million gallons of fuel and a system of pipelines that use the power of gravity to deliver fuel to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
The facility has a long history of leaks, including one just last month that released 14,000 gallons of water and fuel into a tunnel a quarter-mile between the tanks and the Red Hill shaft. That leak is currently under investigation by the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
On Friday, residents and environmental activists held a protest demanding the closure of the facility and a meeting with Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, who is expected to be on Oahu next week for the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“The way the Navy has conducted themselves during this current crisis proves that they cannot be trusted to prioritize the safety of our communities,” Shelley Muneoka, a board member of Kahea: the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, said in a statement.
“Human errors, a catastrophic earthquake – there is no way to control for these factors. Add that to corroded infrastructure and it is clear that there is no safe way forward. The tanks must be shut down now.”
Public officials have also increased scrutiny of Red Hill this week.
Hawaii’s congressional delegation issued a statement on Friday calling on Gov. David Ige to request a federal state of emergency designation from President Joe Biden.
“While the test results leave many questions, it is clear that the Navy has failed to manage its fuel operations, including Red Hill, to a standard that protects the health and safety of the people of Hawai‘i,” the delegation said.
“The Navy must immediately identify, isolate, and fix the problems that have allowed the contamination of the drinking water at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam,” it added. “That includes a wholesale change in an organizational culture that has allowed too many accidents to occur without any accountability.”
It was a significant precautionary measure for an agency that for years has tried to alert the community to the threat the Navy’s fuel operations pose to Oahu’s drinking water. BWS’ efforts, alongside the Sierra Club of Hawaii, culminated in a contested case process this year in which the groups opposed the Navy’s health department permit application. Health Director Libby Char has the power to approve or reject the Navy’s permit. The case is ongoing.
In the meantime, DOH continues to recommend that all Navy water system users avoid using the tap water for drinking, cooking or oral hygiene. Users who detect a fuel-like odor in their water should abstain from using the water for bathing, dishwashing or laundry.
It said the advisory applied to people who use the Navy’s water system for Pearl Harbor, including the Aliamanu Military Reservation, Red Hill and Nimitz Elementary Schools and military housing.
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