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Head of Oʻahu water utility urges protection of vital resource, says fuel has affected the aquifer

Ernest Ernie Lau Honolulu Board of Water Supply 120321
Jason Ubay
/
HPR
Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernest "Ernie" Lau at a press conference about the contaminated Navy water system on Dec. 3, 2021.

The Navy said last week that it has detected petroleum in water from its Red Hill shaft. As a precaution, Oʻahu’s water authority shut down a shaft pulling from the same aquifer.

That cuts off 10 million gallons a day — or roughly 20% of urban Honolulu’s water supply.

“As a precaution, because we tap the same aquifer, we basically take water from the same glass of water," said Ernest "Ernie" Lau, manager and chief engineer for the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, on Friday. "They've shut down pumping because they suspect that their source is contaminated with petroleum."

Ernie Lau board of water supply 120321
Jason Ubay
/
HPR
Honolulu Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernest Lau says the Halawa well was shut down as a precaution. (Dec. 3, 2021)

"What we don't want to do is keep on pumping from our side of that glass and suck the fuel across the valley through the underground aquifer, which exists in the porous lava rock, into our wells and send it to our homes to our customers," Lau said.

Lau said the water from the Board of Water Supply is safe and does not contain any hydrocarbons. But the water testing schedule will be ramped up from monthly to weekly. The well was last tested in October.

It could be closed for months and it won’t be reopened quickly, even if a test result comes in clean.

"That is only one point in time. That tells me only the moment. It doesn’t tell me what may happen over time," Lau 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.”

Lau said it could be tapped if supply is needed in an emergency, such as a water main break.

Honolulu Board of Water Supply water resource map 120321
Jason Ubay
/
HPR

The water utility 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.

Community groups such as the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi have been calling on the Navy to shut down its Red Hill fuel storage facility for years. Lau said the week’s events could be a foreshadowing and made a plea to lawmakers.

"We cannot wait any longer. The water resource is precious, it's irreplaceable, it's pure. There is no substitute for pure water," he said. "Our lives depend upon it. So I would urge the decision-makers and the Navy to take action immediately to take away this risk from our vital water resources there.”

Over the weekend, Gov. David Ige and Hawaiʻi’s entire congressional delegation said operations at the Red Hill fuel storage facility should be suspended immediately.

Jason Ubay is a news editor at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Send your story ideas to him at jubay@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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