It was early November, weeks before the Navy revealed the Pearl Harbor-area drinking water was contaminated with jet fuel, and Meredith Wilson wasn’t feeling well.

Wilson, the wife of an Air Force musician, was suffering from dizziness and disorientation that made her feel like she was outside of her own body. She’d experienced vertigo before, but not like this. When she visited a military doctor on Nov. 2, the physician told her something that has been burned into her memory. 

“You’re the fifth female I’ve seen in the past two weeks with vertigo symptoms,” she recalls the doctor saying. “Could be something environmental.”

In the months before residents began reporting that their water smelled like fuel, Navy test results showed indications of petroleum contamination and twice logged readings above state safety limits for drinking water, records show. But the Navy kept distributing water to its 93,000 customers, and the Hawaii Department of Health, charged with overseeing the delivery of safe drinking water, didn’t tell residents not to drink the water until it was too late. 

Meredith Wilson holds some of her medications in her room at the Sheraton Waikiki. Wilson has been living at the hotel waiting on guidance from the military on when she can permanently move back to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. January 5, 2022.
Meredith Wilson has been living at a hotel since her drinking water was contaminated. She requires several medications to deal with the symptoms she started experiencing last year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Wilson’s symptoms have not been definitively linked to the water contamination. But her medical records show her doctors at Tripler Army Medical Center believed that “water toxicity” played a role in her condition. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say exposure to total petroleum hydrocarbons, or TPH, can cause dizziness, among other symptoms.

Wilson isn’t the only one. Of the 700 households that have reported contamination impacts to Armed Forces Housing Advocates, a nonprofit advocacy group, more than one in 10 were experiencing physical ailments for weeks, and sometimes months, executive director Kate Needham said on Monday.

“The end user, us smelling it from our tap, should not be the people ringing the alarm,” said Wilson, who is still on medications to relieve her symptoms. “There should be a stop gap before that.”

There was supposed to be. 

For years, the state health department has required the Navy to conduct water testing around Red Hill and submit results to DOH on a quarterly basis. The idea was to provide “adequate warning of any potential unacceptable risks to human health,” the Navy said in a 2008 report.

But as a crisis emerged, that early warning system did not alert residents that they were in danger. Instead, residents had to experience the impacts of ingesting and showering in petroleum-tainted water, and thousands have been displaced from their homes. 

Jumbled Data Delivered Late

Navy spokeswoman Lydia Robertson acknowledged in a statement that as a water provider, the Navy had a responsibility to issue an advisory “in the event of a threat to water quality.” 

But the Navy didn’t deem last year’s test results to be a threat, she said, because they were “within EPA safe drinking water standards.”

Roberston didn’t specify which standards she was referring to though, and the family of chemicals detected in the Red Hill well last year – called total petroleum hydrocarbons – isn’t included on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of regulated contaminants in drinking water.

As for DOH, their response was hindered by the Navy providing incomplete data that was delivered months late, according to the department’s Director of Environmental Health Kathleen Ho.

And when health officials finally received results showing evidence of petroleum in the Red Hill well, DOH said it asked for more information to determine whether to issue an advisory. But people started getting sick before any advisory went out. 

To allow people to continue drinking the water despite the apparent contamination “defies logic,” according to Philip Price, a retired analytical chemist based in West Virginia who has worked on water contamination issues. 

Left-right, Chief of Environmental Division US Army Garrison Hawaii, Sherri R. Eng N45 Commander, Navy Region Hawaii by direction of the Commander, Kathleen S. Ho, Deputy Director of Environmental Health, Hawaii Department of Health, and right, Ben Castellana, On Scene Coordinator, US EPA Region 9.
EPA, DOH and Navy officials have worked together for years to prevent another fuel leak like one that occurred in 2014. Now they’re collaborating on cleaning up the contamination. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“The readings very clearly show there is petroleum in the drinking water at hundreds of parts per billion, and I find that unacceptable,” Price said.

As early as 2020, Navy water testing detected levels of diesel-range total petroleum hydrocarbons in the Navy’s system that exceeded state drinking water standards, according to the Navy’s most recent annual water quality report, which was released in July. 

In July, August and September, the testing showed evidence of petroleum contamination in the Red Hill well, which services the area around Pearl Harbor.

Those results, first reported by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, included TPH-o, a family of chemicals linked to heavy oils and grease, at levels exceeding the state safety threshold. DOH said the reading was unusual compared to previous years.

Honolulu Board of Water Supply program administrator Erwin Kawata, who has worked for the water utility for 40 years, agreed with Price. 

If I see a reading like that, I would shut down the water source right away, no question,” he said. “When I saw that, I thought to myself: Why wasn’t the Red Hill shaft shut down?” 

Last week, the Navy released more data from its soil vapor and groundwater monitoring wells. It shows elevated levels of petroleum ingredients in the groundwater between the Red Hill tanks and the Red Hill drinking water shaft as of Oct. 6, weeks before families reported a fuel smell in their water. 

DOH said last week that those test results were not complete or conclusive, and it needs more data before “drawing conclusions.” 

Amid the crisis, the state has ordered the Navy to drain the Red Hill fuel facility, but the military has announced its intention to fight that decision in court. Meanwhile, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply is on the alert for any sign of contamination in its own system. So far, BWS says its tests have come up clean.

The health department has what are called environmental action levels for chemicals in drinking water. But when contaminants exceed that limit, it doesn’t necessarily trigger a public health advisory, Ho said. 

Army caption: Soldiers with 2nd Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, distribute water door-to-door on December 2, 2021 at Aliamanu Military Reservation, Hawaii.
Affected military families had to drink and bathe with bottled water or relocate to hotels. U.S. Army/2021

It’s just a signal to DOH, which will make a determination based on the facts, Ho said. But DOH was receiving lab results in “a staggered fashion,” making it hard to get a clear picture, she said. 

“We kept asking for the results,” she said.

After a fuel release on May 6, the Navy started testing more frequently than before, but results came at irregular intervals, and it was “raw, often marked ‘preliminary,’ and usually incomplete,” according to DOH spokeswoman Katie Arita-Chang. 

“Part of the difficulty of receiving raw, preliminary and incomplete data from the Navy is that it’s hard to know for certain whether a data point or trend line is valid and merits action,” she said. 

For example, Arita-Chang said DOH first received August data showing contaminants exceeding the environmental action level on Oct. 19, but it was bundled together with September samples showing results below the EAL.

“Further complicating matters, the August data was marked ‘preliminary,’” she said. 

In a Nov. 23 letter to DOH, the Navy said that the increased rate of testing had “overwhelmed” its mainland lab and created delays in getting results.

Red Hill

Because the levels of contaminants appeared to go up and then down again, Ho said her department’s engineers responded by seeking more information. Arita-Chang said DOH’s team interpreted the August figures as indicating “a temporary event.” 

“It gave them room to say: Wait, what’s going on?” Ho said. “Why is it high and then it became non-detect? Is there something there that is moving? We need to investigate this further.” 

The Navy spokeswoman said the Navy typically shares its results with DOH within 48 hours of receipt.

However, DOH said it didn’t receive the data showing the two EAL exceedances in August until Oct. 19 – nearly a month after the Navy said it received it from the lab. However, Robertson said the Navy briefed DOH on that data on Oct. 5. 

“In response, the Navy increased sampling frequency to daily for a week and utilized a different lab to expedite testing results,” Robertson said. “All TPH-o levels since these two August reports have been below the EAL at the Red Hill shaft.” 

Robertson said in an email that the cause of those TPH-o detections is part of the military’s investigation, which hasn’t been made public yet.

However, the Navy has pointed to two leaks last year as the suspected culprits of the contamination. On May 6, an estimated 1,600 gallons spewed from a pipeline in the lower access tunnel, according to the Navy, and some 19,000 gallons were released from one of the tanks – a situation about which very little information has been shared. 

That fuel allegedly made its way into a fire suppression drain line that opened up when a cart crashed into it on Nov. 20, releasing contents that would ultimately find their way into the Red Hill well

Even though the testing shows that petroleum products were detected in the Navy’s drinking water well last summer, Ho said it wasn’t yet clear that the contamination was in the distribution system that delivered the water to people’s homes. 

But that became clear soon enough. 

Hawaii Department of Health personnel collected water samples at Kapilina Homes on Dec. 9 in response to concerns about the Red Hill water contamination crisis.
The Hawaii Department of Health has been collecting samples and sending them to a mainland lab for analysis. Courtesy: DOH/2021

On Nov. 28, the DOH was notified that people were complaining about illnesses and a fuel smell in their water. The next day, the health department advised people to stop drinking the water.

“As soon as we found out that there was an issue – when we were informed there were petroleum smells in the water – we acted as expeditiously as possible, within 24 hours,” Ho said. 

Ho emphasized that the Navy had an obligation to provide clean water to its customers. 

“Could the Department of Health had done anything faster? Maybe,” she said. “But we were doing things in a methodical way, based on science, that was protective of public health and the environment. And sometimes you have to investigate. You can’t rush to judgment.” 

A 27,000-gallon fuel leak from one of the Red Hill tanks in 2014 should have been a wake-up call for regulators and many community members, according to Kamanamaikalani Beamer, a former member of the ​​State Water Resource Management Commission. 

For there to be inadequate safeguards eight years later is unacceptable, he said. 

“It’s such an egregious assault on our public trust and highlights the failure of our bureaucracy,” said Beamer, who is a University of Hawaii professor of Hawaiian studies and the law.

The delays and hiccups to obtaining test results underscore the need for a local testing facility, Beamer said. But more than that, he said the facility needs to be shut down.

We need courageous leadership and we need to recognize that the only extreme thing to do in this situation is to keep doing the same thing,” he said. “We can’t keep the fuel above the aquifer anymore.”

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