After weeks of displacement from their homes amid a water contamination crisis, the first group of military families will return to their Red Hill neighborhood in Honolulu with an assurance from the Hawaii Department of Health that their drinking water is safe.

Residents of a small area close to the Navy’s World War II-era Red Hill fuel facility can resume using their water for all purposes effective immediately, DOH said Monday. It’s the first of 19 zones to get the all-clear to go home.

Hawaii Health Department clears Red Hill neighborhood for clean drinking water amid Navy Red Hill crisis.
The Hawaii Health Department cleared the Red Hill neighborhood, shown in green on the map. Courtesy: Department of Health/2022

The area known as Zone I1 includes the Red Hill Elementary School and 135 homes managed by the Army, Gov. David Ige said during a virtual press conference. It is one of 19 zones that have been under a “do not drink” advisory since late November when families started complaining they were sick and their water smelled like fuel.

In all, the contamination crisis has affected some 9,600 households.

“While this announcement is a step forward in the state’s emergency response, we have a long way to go,” Ige said. “Families remain displaced. Keiki are having their learning disrupted. Businesses remain closed. And we must not forget that this disaster shouldn’t have happened in the first place.”

In a statement, Rear Adm. Blake Converse, deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, called the announcement an important milestone and said the interagency response to the crisis was “grounded in hard science and a comprehensive water testing regimen.”

“We will continue to pursue the goal of restoring every neighborhood to safe drinking water standards in a safe and efficient manner,” he said.

According to DOH, the clearance follows a thorough review of water testing results for total petroleum hydrocarbons, or TPH. One sample did contain trace amounts of TPH, but it was below the state’s environmental action level, state toxicologist Diana Felton said.

There has also been testing done for firefighting foam in the water since the contamination is believed to have come from Red Hill’s beleaguered fire suppression system, but there is no evidence of Aqueous Film Forming Foam, or AFFF, in the water, according to Felton.

The water will continue to be tested for years to come, according to DOH Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathy Ho.

In the first three months of people returning home, 5% of homes will be tested for contamination, and in the subsequent six months, 10% of homes will be tested, according to Joanna Seto, an environmental health program administrator.

DOH selected homes that are geographically spaced and that DOH suspects have the highest potential for a positive result, Seto said. Felton said officials had to come up with their own testing parameters because the crisis is so unique, according to Felton.

DOH Health Department Kathy Ho Deputy Director of Environmental Health
DOH Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathy Ho said the agency wouldn’t bring families back home unless it was safe. Screenshot/2022

“Because this contamination event is really unprecedented, the scientific information that’s available that applies directly to this type of exposure is really limited,” Felton said.

She added that the response required an “extensive toxicological analysis and review of the scientific literature.”

But Seto noted that there is also a “resource issue,” given that DOH’s drinking water division is “very, very limited in staffing due to retirements.”

That testing schedule seems inadequate to some residents, including Jamie Simic, a military spouse who has suffered from numerous health problems. Simic went to Washington D.C. last week to demand that the Navy test 100% of homes, among other actions.

In an interview, Simic said 5% or 10% isn’t enough to give residents peace of mind.

“I’m disgusted,” she said. “I don’t trust it at all.”

Simic noted that just last week, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that the Navy found water samples containing dichloroethyl ether, a cancer-causing chemical, as much as 235 times the state’s threshold of .014 parts per billion.

The Sierra Club of Hawaii’s executive director echoed Simic’s concern. In a statement, Wayne Tanaka said people are justifiably afraid to return home.

“Could I trust assurances that my water will be safe, after watching family members, friends and neighbors suffer from petroleum poisoning when the Navy said the same thing three months ago?” he asked. “After watching test results show time and again that certain homes can remain contaminated, while others in the same neighborhood don’t appear to be – and knowing that only 10% of the units in the ‘all-clear zone’ were actually tested? I don’t think I could.”

He added: “If the Navy truly wanted to do right by the people they poisoned, it would continue to provide them with alternative lodging unless and until the families themselves feel that their former homes have been made safe.”

But Felton defended the testing regime.

“It is not 100% of the houses, we understand that, but it is a representative sample, and we feel it is adequate to indicate the healthiness and the safety of the water in Zone I1,” she said.

As the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam system resumes Navy water usage, the water will come from the Navy’s Waiawa shaft, which DOH says was never contaminated. The Navy’s Red Hill shaft was the one contaminated with jet fuel, and a second well, the Navy’s nearby Aiea Halawa shaft, also was closed as a precaution, according to the Navy.

“The process to get the Red Hill shaft back as a drinking water source will be a long process,” Seto said, and DOH will have to approve of its reopening.

Despite its assurances, DOH acknowledged that all island residents are still at risk as long as the Navy continues to operate its fuel facility, although so far no contamination has been found in the civilian water supply. DOH has demanded that the Navy empty the fuel from its tanks, but the federal government is fighting that order in state and federal courts.

“As long as there is fuel in the Red Hill tanks, there remains imminent peril to all water drinkers,” Ho said. “We will fight to ensure that the Navy complies with our emergency orders.”

The next zone that is expected to get the all-clear is Zone A1, the Pearl City peninsula, officials said.

Throughout the crisis, DOH has racked up costs related to its response. The department anticipates spending $4.5 million through June 1, Ho said, and it will be sending a bill to the Navy. 

If anyone observes an unusual smell or taste in their water, Ho said they should contact DOH.

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