The Navy and regulators are facing a fresh wave of criticism following news that officials detected toxic chemicals in the Red Hill drinking water well last year but did not tell the public. 

The chemicals known as PFAS were detected in samples taken from the Red Hill well on Dec. 20 and 27 last year after it was discovered that fuel from the Navy’s Red Hill storage facility had contaminated the drinking water. But the information wasn’t publicized until Hawaii News Now reported it on Friday

The Hawaii Department of Health and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were aware of the detections as early as March, according to a letter the agencies wrote to the Navy, but they didn’t announce the findings. And in April, state toxicologist Diana Felton told Civil Beat that tests for PFAS at Red Hill had come up negative. 

A Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command (NAVFAC) Fleet Logistics Center (FLC) Pearl Harbor employee puts on gloves before entering the spill site as part of NAVFAC Public Works Department and Joint Task Force-Red Hill’s (JTF-RH) hazard material spill recovery operation at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility (RHBFSF) in Halawa, Hawaii, Dec. 1, 2022. Remediation of the spill site through excavation and removal of contaminated surfaces and material was immediately initiated after an estimated 1,100 gallons of aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) concentrate spilled from the fire suppression system at RHBFSF Adit 6 on Nov. 29, 2022. JTF-RH was established by the Department of Defense to ensure the safe and expeditious defueling of the RHBFSF. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Matthew Mackintosh)
The Navy has been working to clean up 1,300 gallons of firefighting foam concentrate from a leak that occurred earlier this month. The leak was initially reported as 1,100 gallons. Joint Task Force Red Hill/2022

At the Honolulu Board of Water Supply’s board meeting on Monday, Chief Engineer Ernie Lau questioned the lack of disclosure. 

“Why didn’t they tell us?” Lau said later in the day. “We need more information.” 

Several residents asked about the delayed notification at a town hall meeting at Moanalua Middle School on Monday, but they didn’t get clear answers. Navy officials said they did their job by informing regulators. 

“We did notify DOH, and that information was readily available on the website,” said Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett, who commands Navy Region Hawaii.

A town hall meeting on Red Hill on Monday got rowdy, with community members heckling Navy officials. Moderator Jacob Aki did his best to facilitate a Q&A. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2022

The data that DOH posts on its website though is highly technical and would be hard for a layperson to decipher. For instance, the Red Hill well is referred to as RHMW2254-01. 

Attorney Kristina Baehr, who is representing about 800 people who got sick after they drank fuel last year, said her clients are “terrified” about the possibility that they were exposed to PFAS. 

“This is only re-traumatizing them,” she said. “They want to know what they were exposed to so they can get the right medical care.” 

PFAS, an acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of chemicals found in fire-suppressing chemicals and consumer products, like non-stick pans.

They don’t break down in the environment and are suspected of causing significant health issues, like cancer and fetal developmental problems. The chemicals are present in the aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, that the Navy has used at the Red Hill facility and that leaked earlier this month

In a statement, DOH said its own initial testing at Red Hill last December did not detect PFAS. Samples later taken by the Navy tested positive, and the Navy informed regulators on March 31, DOH said. 

“Public notification by the regulatory agencies was not required,” DOH said. 

The levels were lower than the state’s environmental action level and the EPA’s health advisory level at the time, 70 parts per trillion. However, in June, the EPA changed its advisory level to 0.004 parts per trillion for one kind of PFAS, called PFOA, and 0.02 ppt for another kind, called PFOS.

“There were more data, peer-reviewed science and data, that has indicated that the adverse impacts from exposure were more harmful than was originally understood,” Corine Li, a water program manager for the EPA, said at the BWS board meeting. 

Regulators are requiring the Navy to conduct further PFAS testing, DOH said. 

Neither regulators nor the Navy commented on the potential source of the PFAS detected last December. Navy officials have said the fire suppression drain line from which thousands of gallons of fuel spewed for hours in November 2021 did not contain AFFF. 

At the town hall, Jeff Kilian, commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Pacific, noted that when the PFAS were detected, the Red Hill well was already shut down because of the fuel contamination crisis. 

However, at the BWS meeting on Monday, Lau noted that there are even earlier detections of PFAS in the Pearl Harbor area’s drinking water, according to the military’s own water quality reports. He said he would write a letter to the Navy seeking more information.

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