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Board of Water Supply shuts down Halawa well as a precaution following Navy well contamination

Honolulu Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernest Lau says the Halawa well was shut down as a precaution. (Dec. 3, 2021)
Jason Ubay
Honolulu Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernest Lau says the Halawa well was shut down as a precaution. (Dec. 3, 2021)

Amid a continuing crisis over fuel contaminating the Navy’s tap water at Pearl Harbor, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply shut down the Halawa well as a precaution — its largest water source on Oʻahu, supplying about 20% of the water for Urban Honolulu.

Residents should use water wisely at this time, BWS officials said. It will make up the 20% supplied by the Halawa shaft by upping pumpage from other resources.

The Navy confirmed Thursday that two different tests detected petroleum products in its Red Hill well. One test "identified trace amounts of very volatile hydrocarbons, which would normally be associated with something like a JP-5 or a diesel fuel," said Rear Adm. Blake Converse, Pacific Fleet deputy commander.

Converse said the Navy took the Red Hill well offline on Sunday. The Halawa well taps the same aquifer as the Navy's Red Hill well.

The BWS says its water does not contain petroleum products. BWS has increased the frequency of water testing.

"Our concern is that if the Red Hill shaft is not pumping, and we still continue to pump our Halawa shaft as normal — the question that we have in our mind and our concern is, will this now draw any leaks of fuel into the aquifer across Halawa Valley, toward our Halawa shaft at a more rapid rate?" Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernest Lau told HPR's The Conversation on Thursday. "We don't know the answer because also, the data from the monitor wells hasn't been updated."

The Navy did not alert regulators before it shut off the Red Hill well on Nov. 28, Lau said.

"That was extremely concerning. This happened once before, many years ago in 2015, where the Navy did stop operations of Red Hill shaft for a period of almost nine months and did not tell the regulators or the BWS about it," he said.

The BWS Halawa well could be closed for months, Lau said. It won't be reopened quickly, even if a test result comes back clean.

"That is only one point in time. That tells me only the moment. It doesn’t tell me what may happen over time," he said. "We’ll keep it shutdown until we are assured there is no risk that we turn it on and there’s a risk that we might draw and deliver it to our customers.”

The utility's Halawa well produces 10 million gallons (37.8 million liters) a day under normal conditions and serves about 400,000 residents from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai, not including visitors.

Erwin Kawata, with the BWS Water Quality Division, said the Navy's testing results seem inconsistent with what residents have experienced, so they are waiting for more data.

BWS has reviewed data from the Navy’s monitor wells in the lower access tunnel and found that fuel has affected the aquifer.

"There’s clear evidence that fuel contamination of groundwater in that area has been around for years," Lau said.

The Hawaiʻi Department of Health continues to recommend Navy water system users should avoid using the water for drinking, cooking, or oral hygiene. Those who detect a fuel-like odor from their water should further avoid using the water for bathing, dishwashing, or laundry.

DOH tests separately found petroleum products in water collected at Red Hill Elementary.

An image showing the locations of the underground BWS Halawa Shaft and Red Hill.
Honolulu Board of Water Supply
An image showing the locations of the underground BWS Halawa Shaft and Red Hill.

The Navy water system serves about 93,000 customers, including military households and several public schools.

The Navy said it doesn’t yet know the source of the petroleum in its Red Hill well. Lau said facts point to the Navy Red Hill Fuel Storage Facility system. The shared aquifer sits about 100 feet underneath the Red Hill fuel tanks.

To protect Oʻahu's water, Lau urged the Navy to remove the risk posed by the Red Hill facility. It consists of 20 tanks, each as tall as a 25-story building — built in the early 1940s.

“We depend 100% on underground aquifers. Keeping the purity of these underground aquifers is vital to our community’s existence, to our future,” Lau said.

The most recent leak from the Red Hill Fuel Storage Facility occurred last month. The Navy said on Nov. 22 that a water and fuel mixture had leaked into a fire suppression system drain line in a tunnel. The Navy said it removed about 14,000 gallons of the mixture, and said the liquid hadn’t leaked into the environment.

This is a developing story.

Sophia McCullough is a digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Jason Ubay is the managing editor at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Send your story ideas to him at jubay@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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