Two of the U.S. military’s water distribution systems, which serve some 93,000 people around Pearl Harbor, have numerous problems that may violate federal and state regulations, according to an investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Whether the military will be hit with violation notices for its alleged maintenance and oversight failures has not yet been determined, the agency said.

The EPA reviewed the water systems in April, about four months after fuel from the Navy’s Red Hill storage facility contaminated a nearby drinking water well, sickening military families. Inspectors were looking for compliance with U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act regulations. 

EPA inspectors found rust and corrosion in the Pearl Harbor water system during an April 2022 investigation.
EPA inspectors found rust and corrosion in and around Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam water storage tanks during an April 2022 investigation. EPA/2022

The agency finalized two reports in May, one covering Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam and the other on the Aliamanu Military Reservation water systems. 

While the contamination of the water system with fuel is the chief concern in the community, the EPA found several other issues. 

During the review of the Pearl Harbor system, inspectors found:

  • There is no preventative maintenance program.
  • There is no safety training program or standard operating procedures for operators. 
  • The pump shaft at the Waiawa well, the only one the Navy is currently using, is rusted.
  • The hatches of two water storage tanks were not sealed, allowing geckos to nest inside the tanks. 
  • One of the Red Hill water storage tanks, which contains a “significant amount of sediment,” hasn’t been cleaned since it was installed in the 1990s. 
  • For months, hundreds of gallons of bleach, used to disinfect water, were left in direct sunlight, which can degrade it.

The report doesn’t make a judgment on the safety of the water as a result of these deficiencies, and the Navy and state Department of Health have maintained since March that the water is safe to drink. However, residents continue to report health problems they believe are connected to the water.

The Pearl Harbor water system has no preventative maintenance program, the EPA found. EPA/2022

Wayne Tanaka, the executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, said the EPA’s findings are very concerning.

“It’s flabbergasting that they would be so negligent and so reckless in allowing these issues to persist,” he said. “This is water that is being provided to families, children, infants.” 

At the Red Hill water shaft, the EPA also observed an “actively leaking and severely corroded” valve on a pipe that leads to the Red Hill fuel storage tanks. The report doesn’t say whether it was leaking water or fuel.  

Pearl Harbor water system operators and officials with the Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command were “unable to demonstrate a general understanding of the water system” and how to apply the Safe Drinking Water Act and Hawaii Department of Health regulations, according to the investigative report. 

And the system’s risk assessment didn’t factor in the possibility of fuel contamination from Red Hill, the report states, even though that threat has been well documented for years. 

The EPA also faulted the Pearl Harbor water system for failing to issue a public notification to its customers within 24 hours of confirming the Red Hill shaft had been contaminated with fuel. Fuel gushed from a pipeline for 34 hours beginning on Nov. 20, but the Navy didn’t shut down the well – located just 380 feet away – until Nov. 28, after residents started complaining. The military didn’t publicly acknowledge there was fuel in the water until Dec. 2.

EPA inspectors found a "actively leaking and severely corroded gate valve on the pipe to the Red Hill tanks" during an April 2022 investigation.
EPA inspectors found an “actively leaking and severely corroded gate valve on the pipe to the Red Hill tanks” during an April 2022 investigation. EPA/2022

“They shouldn’t be running the water system,” Tanaka said of the Navy. “I don’t trust them with that responsibility.”

In a statement, Navy spokeswoman Lydia Robertson said the Navy has taken action on the items in the investigation. 

“The Navy has already fixed and remedied or has plans to address the items mentioned in the EPA report and continues to work closely with EPA to ensure the water in the Navy’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam system continues to meet all standards,” she said.

The Aliamanu Military Reservation water system is operated by the Army Garrison Hawaii but receives its water from the Pearl Harbor system. It serves approximately 6,400 people, the EPA said. 

In that system, inspectors again found several problems, including maintenance issues, a lack of staffing and unspecified floating particles on the surface of the water in one of the water storage tanks. The particles were allegedly removed soon after, according to the EPA. 

The EPA posted both investigative reports on its website this month but did not otherwise announce their publication. 

A Hawaii-based spokesman for the agency declined to comment on the findings on Friday. 

“These documents are still related to ongoing enforcement efforts, so EPA is not discussing these documents at the moment,” Public Affairs Specialist Alejandro Díaz said in an email.  

In acknowledgement of the report, Army spokesman Mike Donnelly released a short statement.

“The U.S. Army in Hawaii is reviewing the findings and reports by the EPA, however, providing safe drinking water to our families is the only acceptable standard,” he said.

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