Samples taken from the Navy water system tested positive for jet fuel after the military and the state health department declared it was safe to drink, according to testing by University of Hawaii researchers.

The findings – contradicting the stance of the Navy and the Hawaii Department of Health, which have maintained since March 18 that the water is free of fuel – were published Tuesday morning with a press release and data dashboard on UH’s website.

But in an unusual move, both pages were removed from the university’s public website within hours, and a press conference scheduled to announce the findings was canceled.

Before it was taken down, the dashboard showed that the UH Red Hill Task Force observed evidence of low concentrations of JP-5 jet fuel in a small percentage of samples collected from households on the Navy water system in April and May.

The implications of the findings for Pearl Harbor area’s drinking water were unclear, although the Navy and the DOH stood by their assertions that the water is potable. Members of the research team were told to direct media inquiries to the university’s communications office, which did not make anyone available for interviews.

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.
Water samples taken on the Navy water system showed indications of jet fuel after the military and health department declared it was safe to drink, according to University of Hawaii researchers. Courtesy: DOH/2021

Researchers said they used a highly sensitive testing method called fluorescence spectroscopy that uses light to detect chemical compounds – in this case, petroleum hydrocarbons. Water samples were compared with a sample of Red Hill jet fuel provided by the Navy, the task force said on its online dashboard before it was made password-protected.

Positive detections were found in samples taken from Ford Island, Hickam and Red Hill Mauka after DOH lifted a “do not drink” advisory on March 18, according to the task force.

“The assumption is that positive screening detection of potential JP5 fluorescence are residual contaminants from the fuel released into the Red Hill Shaft and distributed through the Navy drinking water system,” the task force said.

Fluorescence spectroscopy is not a method certified by the Environmental Protection Agency for detecting specific contaminants or health risks, the dashboard said. The test may detect one or more chemicals in jet fuel, the dashboard said, but won’t tell you whether it’s gasoline or diesel. 

“It’s not a perfect method, but it can point us in the right direction,” the task force said.

However, the task force’s method is capable of rapidly screening a large number of samples for potential contamination at a low detection limit of 10 parts per billion, according to the dashboard.

The Department of Health’s screening threshold, called an environmental action level, for total petroleum hydrocarbons is 211 parts per billion. Concentrations below that level are not thought to pose a significant threat to human health or the environment, according to the task force. But some community members have expressed concern that DOH’s threshold is too high because residents have reported feeling sick even when their water test results are supposedly “non-detect” for fuel.

Whether the levels of petroleum hydrocarbons that UH found could impact people’s health is not addressed in the research.

“We are not qualified to comment on the implications for human health and any positive detections require follow-up analysis,” the task force said.

The DOH said it remains focused on protecting Hawaii’s drinking water but relies on EPA-certified methods.

“The University of Hawaii tested for the presence or absence of fluorescence — which can be caused by a wide variety of substances, including biofilms that are commonly found in household plumbing. DOH does not use the fluorescence method for testing due to the same possibility of interference or false positives that UH identified,” the agency said in a statement.

“We look forward to continued collaboration, but will continue to make decisions based on EPA-certified methods run at EPA-certified laboratories. Those certified tests continue to show that the Navy’s drinking water system meets EPA and DOH’s strict drinking water standards,” it added.

The Navy also stood by its assertion that the drinking water is safe, saying that results of long-term monitoring of its water have shown “no detections of JP5 contamination in the system.”

“The Navy will continue to work with the University of Hawaii and other partners at the local, state, and federal levels to ensure that water from the Navy water system remains safe for all uses,” Navy Region Hawaii spokeswoman Lydia Robertson said in a statement.

Data compiled by the University of Hawaii Red Hill Task Force shows positive detections for fuel in the Navy's water system even after the military and state health department deemed it safe.
Data compiled by the University of Hawaii Red Hill Task Force shows positive detections for fuel in the Navy’s water system even after March when the military and state health department deemed it safe. UH Red Hill Task Force

Some 2,000 people reported getting sick in November after a leak at the Navy’s Red Hill fuel storage complex contaminated the drinking water. As of March 18, following massive flushing of the Navy’s pipes, the military declared its water system safe with the health department’s stamp of approval. Families who had been living in hotels moved back into their homes. 

But after that point, some families continued to report illnesses and new symptoms that they suspected were connected to their water despite the reassurances by the Navy and the DOH.

For impacted families, the UH group’s findings provide a possible explanation for what they’ve been feeling, said Kate Needham, executive directorArmed Forces Housing Advocates. 

“It gives the residents peace of mind,” she said.

The UH Red Hill Task Force, which was formed in December, comprises faculty, staff and students of UH Manoa and Leeward Community College, as well as independent scientists and trained volunteers, it said on its website before it was taken down.

Its work is separate from the testing done by the Navy and DOH, which ship samples to the mainland. It is also unrelated to the sampling of Navy monitoring wells.

Samples taken from the civilian water system, managed by the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, yielded no positive detections for fuel, according to the UH team.

In a statement, UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl did not assert that any of the data is inaccurate but said the release was issued prematurely. “This is only a temporary delay and an announcement will be made as soon as the dashboard is online and available to the public. We apologize for any confusion or inconvenience this may have caused,” he said in a statement.

Needham, who was a volunteer for the task force, said the data was supposed to be released at the beginning of May but was delayed several times. She said she learned on July 1 that UH had given a briefing on the findings to the Navy, which has given the university millions of dollars in grants this year.

“The fact that they put this up so quietly and removed it is so disturbing to me,” she said. “It’s a slap in the face not only to the residents who were supposed to have access to this but also the scientists who put their careers at risk to do this.”

Civil Beat captured pdf files of the UH press release and online dashboard before they were removed. You can view the press release here, the dashboard here, the project FAQ here, and a science FAQ here

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author