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Honolulu shut down its largest water source in Oahu due to reported contamination of Navy well near Pearl Harbor

By Alaa Elassar and Raja Razek, CNN

Records show a history of fuel leaks plaguing Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in the past decade, with the most recent leak occurring 11 days before the Navy announced it had discovered contamination in the Red Hill well on Oahu.

Honolulu’s Board of Water Supply (BWS) shut down the Halawa Shaft, Oahu’s largest water source, on Thursday after the Navy said it found “a likely source of the contamination,” the Navy said in a virtual town hall meeting.

Top US military officials — including Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro — were in Hawaii Sunday to address the community.

The deputy commander of the US Pacific Fleet. Rear Adm. Blake Converse, confirmed a petroleum leak is the cause of the latest breach.

“The situation we’re in today, it’s completely and totally unacceptable,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday added.

The military has offered all service members and civilian employees living near the base the opportunity to get alternative housing, and Converse said they are now covering the cost of hotel rooms for more than 700 people.

Converse did not have a timeline for getting drinkable water back to the affected homes. “It will involve a series of flushes of not just the water distribution main, but of every home,” he explained.

The Navy added it has seen concerns from people in the affected neighborhoods who were exposed to the contaminated water and reported symptoms including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches and skin-related concerns.

The Navy isolated the Red Hill well last Sunday and sent samples out for testing Monday, it said.

“The results of the Red Hill sample showed petroleum hydrocarbons roughly four to ten times below the Hawaii Department of Health Environmental Action Level (EAL). The Navy had a separate test that confirmed vapors, which is another indication of petroleum hydrocarbons,” it said in a statement.

“The Navy is developing a plan to restore the potable water system to EPA standards, identify how this contaminant got in the well, and fix the well,” the statement continued.

On Tuesday, when BWS heard about the shutdown of the well, it reduced pumping capacity by 50%, it said in a news release.

“We are deeply concerned that we were not notified immediately by the Navy regarding the shutdown of their Red Hill water source,” BWS Manager and Chief Engineer Ernest Lau said in a statement, adding that the Halawa shaft was shut down in an “abundance of caution.”

“We have data that shows when they stop pumping at Red Hill, water starts moving in the direction of our Halawa Shaft due to our pumping,” Lau said.

A history of fuel leaks

Another incident in May involved the release of more than 1,600 gallons of jet fuel from a pipeline inside the storage facility, according to the Navy.

“An investigation determined that operator error caused the release of 1,618 gallons of jet fuel (JP-5) from a pipeline inside the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility (RHBFSF) on May 6, 2021,” the Navy said. “iThe release was not from the fuel tanks.”

In October, the Hawaii Department of Health cited the Navy for violations related to operation and maintenance of the facility, records show. The fines and violations resulted from a routine inspection from September 28, 2020, through October 9, 2020, according to the health department.

The Notice of Violation and Order (NOVO) consisted of five counts with a total penalty in the amount of $325,182, the Hawaii Department of Health said in a news release.

The five counts, the Hawaii Department of Health said in a news release, were:

  • Failure to operate and maintain ongoing corrosion protection to metal components of the portion of the Navy’s tank and piping that contain regulated substances and are in contact with the ground.
  • Failure to perform line tightness testing of repaired piping before return to service.
  • Failure to perform an annual liquid tightness test on spill prevention equipment to prevent releases to the environment.
  • Failure to perform an adequate visual walkthrough inspection of hydrant pits
  • Failure to maintain adequate release detection for two double-walled underground product recovery storage tanks.

In January 2014, during the refueling of a tank, the Navy identified an estimated fuel release of up to 27,000 gallons of JP-8 jet fuel, according to the Hawaii Department of Health.

“U.S. Navy subsequently drained the tank and collected samples from existing monitoring wells. Results taken in and around Tank 5 indicated increases of hydrocarbons in soil vapor and groundwater,” the health department said. At the time, the agency said the drinking water was in compliance with federal and state “concentrations for drinking water both before and after the January 2014 release.”

‘It is clear that the Navy has failed to manage its fuel operations’

The Halawa shaft pumps 10 million gallons of water per day and delivers water to 20% of Honolulu’s water supply, the BWS said.

Neighborhoods where the contamination was reported include Catlin Park, Halsey Terrace, Radford Terrace, Doris Miller, Moanalua Terrace and Ohana Nui, the Navy said in a news release.

“The Commander, Navy Region Hawaii, has determined Temporary Lodging (TLA) is necessary for service members and their dependents, and civilians living in housing affected by the current water-related health or safety concerns,” the Navy said in an update.

The authorization is limited to active-duty service members and civilian employees living in housing who self-certify they are affected, according to the Navy.

Various fitness centers and pools have been made available for residents in affected neighborhoods to shower.

Sunday evening, a joint statement from Hawaii Gov. David Ige and the state’s three members of Congress called for the Navy to immediately suspended operations at Red Hill. “Test results confirming contamination of drinking water at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam show that the Navy is not effectively operating the World War II-era facility and protecting the health and safety of the people of Hawai’i,” they said.

The state’s congressional delegation previously asked that the Navy “immediately” identify, isolate and fix the problems that allowed the contamination to happen. They also urged the governor to request assistance from the Biden administration.

Converse said at the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam virtual town hall meeting that the health and welfare “of the residents of our housing and the state of Hawaii and their citizens” is a priority.

“Our second priority is to identify, isolate and clean up the potable water system that the military provides and restore public confidence in that system to get you back to normalcy, back into your homes, and drinking clean water,” Converse added.

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CNN’s Joe Sutton, Natasha Chen, Jack Hannah and Andy Rose contributed to this report.

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