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Navy detects petroleum products in Red Hill water well, thousands of military families affected

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A sign alerting military residents of water issues on Dec. 2, 2021.

HONOLULU — Cheri Burness' dog was the first to signal something was wrong with their tap water. He stopped drinking it two weeks ago. Then Burness started feeling stomach cramps. Her 12-year-old daughter was nauseous.

“It was just getting worse every day,” said Burness, whose husband is in the Navy.

Their family is one of nearly 1,000 Hawaiʻi military households that have complained about their tap water smelling like fuel, or of physical ailments like stomach cramps and vomiting. The Navy water system serves 93,000 people.

The tap water problems have afflicted one of the military's most important bases, home to submarines, ships and the commander of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific region. They also threaten to jeopardize one of Honolulu’s most important aquifers and water sources.

The Navy said Thursday that tests had identified petroleum in its Red Hill well. Rear Adm. Blake Converse, Pacific Fleet deputy commander, told a town hall meeting the Navy took this well offline on Sunday because it was the closest well to affected housing areas.

"We identified the petroleum products from two different tests. One test was taken on Sunday night shortly after this incident was identified to the Navy. And that test identified trace amounts of very volatile hydrocarbons, which would normally be associated with something like a JP-5 or a diesel fuel," Converse said.

The second test found "clear indications of petroleum products in the gas space just above the waterline in the Red Hill well," Converse said. "With both of those, we have pretty conclusive indications that there are volatile petroleum products in the well and we've determined that is the likely source of the contamination of our water distribution system."

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Navy Rear Adm. Blake Converse, center, at a virtual town hall meeting to provide an update on the contamination in the Navy’s water system on Thursday evening, Dec. 2, 2021.

Converse said the Navy will flush clean water through its distribution system to clear residual petroleum products from the water. The process, followed by testing to make sure the water meets Environmental Protection Agency drinking standards, could take four to 10 days, he said.

The Navy will also investigate how contaminants got into the well and fix it, he said. As for when the contamination exactly began, Navy officials said they are awaiting test results from samples collected before Sunday.

In the meantime, military officials say they will help affected families move into hotels or new homes.

Amid the continuing crisis, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply shut off one of its wells so the Navy system doesn’t taint its own supply with petroleum from an underground aquifer it shares with the military. The BWS said its water system is separate from the Navy and it is not receiving similar complaints.

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. The health department separately found petroleum products in a water sample from Red Hill Elementary.

The Navy has since started distributing bottled water and said Marines would set up showers and laundry facilities connected to clean water. It is also setting up dedicated medical clinics.

U.S. Army soldiers distribute water door-to-door on Dec. 2, 2021, at Aliamanu Military Reservation. (U.S. Army Photo by Specialist Kenyel Jones/28th Public Affairs Detachment)
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U.S. Army soldiers distribute water door-to-door on Dec. 2, 2021, at Aliamanu Military Reservation. (U.S. Army Photo by Specialist Kenyel Jones/28th Public Affairs Detachment)

Environmental and Native Hawaiian groups, meanwhile, are demanding a meeting with Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro. He's scheduled to visit Hawaiʻi next week to attend a ceremony marking the 80th anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Burness has been frustrated with the Navy's response, which she believes has been dismissive of families' concerns. She pointed to a Monday email from the commander of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam that told residents the Navy was testing water samples but it had no immediate indication the water wasn't safe. His email said he and his staff were drinking the water.

“All they had to do was say: ‘We see that there’s a problem, we don’t know what it is and we’re going to do whatever it takes to find out and fix it.’ That’s all they had to do. And instead, we got: ‘Nope. Looks good. Smells fine. Bye,'” Burness said.

Navy Region Hawaiʻi, which oversees all Navy installations in the state, said the commander's email was sent when “numbers of concerns were still very low.”

“Since then, the Navy has aggressively increased sampling, testing, communication to families and others impacted, as well as started response teams of experts to address the issues we all are facing,” the command said in a statement.

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 (53,000 liters) of the mixture, and said the liquid hadn’t leaked into the environment.

Navy Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility
Shannon Haney/Naval Supply Systems Command Fle
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(Jan. 26, 2018) A tunnel inside of the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility. (U.S. Navy Photo/Released)

The tanks sit 100 feet above the aquifer. Last month, the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi and other environmental groups called on the government to shut the tanks down.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono indicated decommissioning the tanks was a possibility, telling a conference call with reporters that “all options are on the table.” But she said first she wanted to focus on making sure people were getting safe water for drinking and other daily needs.

“When people are smelling fuel in their water, this is totally abnormal, totally unacceptable,” said Hirono, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on seapower.

Hirono said she's asked the Navy to give her a classified briefing on their fuel needs.

Burness said her experience has shaken her confidence in the military. During her decades as a military spouse, she's always believed in doing whatever it takes to support “the mission.”

“This has destroyed all of that,” she said. “I have zero confidence at this point, and I think this has shown that they cannot be trusted with anything.”

This is a developing story.

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