Following the Navy’s contamination of its water supply with fuel last year, the Hawaii Department of Health said Wednesday that the plume of pollution appears to be “stable and possibly contracting.”

In March, levels of contaminants, primarily total petroleum hydrocarbons (diesel and oil), were much lower than they were in December and January, the weeks immediately following the initial detection of fuel in the water, according to Bob Whittier, a source water protection geologist with DOH.

This is particularly true for wells along the northwest side of the facility, he said via email.

The Navy has been pumping contaminated water out of the Red Hill well, then filtering and discharging it into the Halawa Stream. Courtesy: U.S. Navy/2022

For example, on Dec. 1, the monitoring well called RHMW08 – located mauka of the Red Hill fuel facility – had levels of TPH-d at 1,300 parts per billion and TPH-o at 1,200 parts per billion, according to water testing data the Navy shared with DOH.

DOH’s safety threshold, or environmental action level, is 400 parts per billion for TPH-d and 500 parts per billion for TPH-o.

On March 23, the levels were estimated to be 70 parts per billion and 230 parts per billion, respectively.

The contamination came to light in late November when military families living around Pearl Harbor reported that their water smelled like fuel and that they were getting sick. The Navy has since admitted that some 19,000 gallons of fuel leaked last year from its World War II-era fuel farm at Red Hill, which is just 100 feet above the drinking water aquifer.

The crisis has left thousands of families with uncertainty about potential long-term health problems and has raised the possibility of water shortages that could disrupt daily life for residents and halt construction on Oahu.

Under a plan with regulators, the Navy is pumping up to five million gallons of water out of the contaminated Red Hill shaft every day. The fuel-tainted water runs through a granular activated carbon filtration system, and is then discharged into the Halawa Stream. 

The idea was to create “a capture zone” in the aquifer, sucking the contaminated water toward the well to contain the damage and treat the polluted water.

Whether the decreasing contamination levels are an indication that the Navy’s pumping and filtering efforts are working, DOH Katie Arita-Chang said it’s too early to say.

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 thru these large pipes into the Halawa Stream.
The Navy has been cleaning the water from the Red Hill well with large GAC filters. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“I think it’s too soon to attribute to one particular cause — especially with the complexity of groundwater movement,” she said.

The aquifer that lies beneath the Red Hill facility is geologically unique and complex, and experts say they are still trying to gain an understanding of how water moves through it.

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply last year shuttered three of its nearby wells as a precaution, fearing that contaminated water from Red Hill could be pulled toward them.

BWS Chief Engineer Ernie Lau has since expressed concern that the Red Hill contamination could be spreading, Hawaii News Now reported. BWS officials did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday afternoon.

Also Wednesday, DOH announced that the federal government has proposed pausing its legal challenges to the state’s emergency order that demanded the removal of fuel from the Red Hill facility. A case in federal court was stayed through June 3 in a joint stipulation, DOH said. However, in a state case, the military’s motion to stay the proceedings was denied by Judge Jeffrey Crabtree, court records show.

The Department of Defense said in early March that it would permanently close the facility, although it hasn’t provided a specific timeline.

The military also has withdrawn its 2019 application for a state permit to continue operating the facility, according to a letter Rear Adm. Tim Kott sent to the health department. The permit application has been contested by BWS and the Sierra Club of Hawaii for years.

The health department said it plans to issue a new emergency order pertaining to Red Hill but didn’t share details of its contents on Wednesday.

The Navy will keep testing water samples throughout the Pearl Harbor area with oversight from DOH and the U.S. EPA and is working to install more water monitoring wells, DOH said.

“DOH continues its work to ensure that the Navy’s defueling and closure process occurs as expeditiously as possible, with public health and safety as priorities,” the department said.

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