Former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona and Rep. Bob McDermott are calling for a water treatment system on Oahu to shield the public water supply from fuel leakages related to the Navy’s fuel storage facility at Red Hill.

The joint press conference Thursday was held at the Hawaii Republican Party headquarters in Kakaako, where Aiona, the party’s nominee for governor, and McDermott, the party’s nominee for U.S. senator, spoke about the continuing need to address the effects from the leak.

Aiona said he was specifically referring to a filtration system for civilian wells, which are separate from the military’s, though both use the same aquifer for their supply. 

Bob McDermott speaks with Republican Gubernatorial candidate Duke Aiona speak about the catastrophic potential of the recent Red Hill fuel spill during a press conference held at the Republican headquarters.
Rep. Bob McDermott’s district includes homes affected by the Red Hill fuel spill. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

This aquifer supplies most of Oahu’s water, and about 100 feet above it is where the Red Hill fuel storage facility sits with its capacity to hold hundreds of millions of gallons of petroleum. 

The facility made news in 2014 when almost 30,000 gallons of fuel leaked, though initially it was determined that the supply of drinking water was still safe. This changed last year when one of the military’s own wells was found to be contaminated, affecting about 93,000 people. 

“We want the rest of the aquifer – the civilian area – to have some sort of preventative treatment in place,” McDermott said after the press conference.

McDermott insisted that Oahu residents need a water filtration system in place as soon as possible. He referred to a graphic that showed the probabilities of future fuel leakages, with numbers drawn from a risk assessment commissioned by the Navy under an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency and Hawaii Department of Health.

“The technology exists,” he said. “I don’t know what you call it exactly, but – supercritical water oxidation or carbon filtration or osmosis, whatever that is – that’s what we want to do.”

The technology doesn’t yet exist on the scale needed though.

McDermott and Aiona emphasized that their press conference was about broadly calling for this kind of system, acknowledging that the Hawaii Board of Water Supply would be key to determining implementation.

The board was unaware of the press conference and was unable to comment on the technology proposed.

Water filtration is currently used for Central Oahu and the North Shore, thanks to a legacy of fertilizer used by the pineapple and sugar plantations in the region.

But petroleum is trickier to filter. It’s a more complex molecule, and filtering oil from water is akin to finding a cure for cancer, in that a method which works for one type of molecule might not work for others that also fall under the petroleum umbrella.

This kind of technology wasn’t as needed before Red Hill, said Wayne Tanaka, director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii.

“We’re in a very novel situation,” he said.

Granular activated carbon technology, or GAC, is a common type of filtration system. To mitigate fuel spreading even further, the military began using GACs in February to filter affected water before pumping it back into the environment, though this water still isn’t potable, said Tanaka.

And regardless, these GACs filter about only 5 million gallons of water each day — a far cry from Oahu’s daily use of over 100 million gallons, he said.

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