All military families can safely drink their tap water, the Hawaii Department of Health said Friday, after clearing the final four zones affected by the Red Hill fuel leaks.

Residents of the Earhart Village, Hale Alii, Marine Barracks, Hospital Point and Shipyard neighborhoods, 950 homes in total, as well as workers in the non-residential submarine base can once again use their water for all purposes, including cooking, bathing, and watering pets, the DOH said in a press release.

With this announcement, the DOH has lifted the health advisory for all 9,715 homes in 19 zones plus Manana Housing, which had been disconnected from the military water system shortly before a November fuel leak from the Navy’s Red Hill underground storage facility contaminated a pair of drinking wells that served some 93,000 military and civilian families.

“I can’t emphasize enough how much I admire the strength of the individuals and families impacted by this crisis,” said DOH Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathleen Ho in the press release. “However, our work is not done. We will continue rigorous oversight to protect drinking water, including our aquifer, and will hold the Navy accountable to protect public health and the environment.”

Red Hill well pipe will pump up to 5 million gallons of contaminated water to 8 tanks that contain granulated carbon to filter the contaminants and then be discharged into the Halawa Stream.
Fuel from Navy tanks contaminated a drinking well that served some 93,000 residents. The DOH declared Friday all residents could once again drink their water. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Of the approximately 8,000 families affected, about half chose to move out of their homes, depending on a temporary lodging allowance to pay for Waikiki hotel rooms and other short-term housing. The rest chose to stay put, drinking bottled water and bathing in on-base shower stations.

In an effort to bring residents back to their homes, the Navy began flushing neighborhood mains and residences of contaminated fluid after disconnecting the military water system from the affected wells. The Interagency Drinking Water System Team, comprised of Navy officials, federal regulators and the DOH, then tested samples from about 10% of homes.

The DOH declared the first neighborhoods safe in mid-February, with families returning in waves through March. Following the all-clear, families had 48 hours to return home before their allowance expired. TLA payments for residents of the final few zones will end Sunday.

The Navy is also discontinuing the extra services it provided affected families, with bottled and jugged water distribution and laundry services ending throughout the next 10 days, according to the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Facebook page.

If residents still have concerns about the purity of their water, they should call the Navy’s Emergency Operations Center to send a Rapid Response Team to investigate, a Navy spokesman said.

Earhart Village resident Crystal Cheff, however, said her family will not be using the water in their home for anything other than “watering the flowers” and that the family will survive on bottled water for drinking and bathing.

“The pipes are very porous, they have the ability to absorb things over a period of time,” Cheff said. “Without removing those pipes and putting something new in, the contaminant is sitting in those pipes, and they’re going to continuously release some type of chemical.”

Cheff, who has two young kids and a husband in the Air Force, said her family is currently staying at the military-owned Hale Koa hotel in Waikiki. She says she has no choice but to move back in her home when their TLA benefits end.

The state will continue to work with the Navy to finalize a long term monitoring plan, said DOH communications director Katie Arita-Chang, with plans to test 5% of homes over the next three months and, in the following six months, test an additional 10% of homes.

Cheff said residents would not be confident in the safety of their water until 100% of homes are tested.

“What is 10%?” Cheff asked. “That’s nothing considering the mass that has been affected.”

Following significant and sustained pressure from community groups and state and national lawmakers, the Department of Defense announced last week it would move to defuel and permanently close the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility over the course of a year.

Arita-Chang said the DOH will hold the Navy to its commitment, and said the state recently raised concerns about the level of influence the Navy maintained over a third-party contractor it hired to develop a defueling plan.

Cheff, however, said she doesn’t feel she can trust the Navy any longer.

“If given the opportunity, I would rather leave the island completely,” Cheff said. “We still have three more years here. I love the island, but I’m very sick of this whole situation.”

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