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Petroleum contamination found in second Navy water shaft, Board of Water Supply shuts down 2 wells

Honolulu Board of Water Supply map of Oʻahu showing the location of the Navy's Red Hill fuel facility
Jason Ubay
Honolulu Board of Water Supply map of Oʻahu showing the location of the Navy's Red Hill fuel facility

— This is a breaking news update at 4 p.m. Friday. The original story remains below. —

Water from the Navy’s Red Hill shaft contains high levels of gasoline and diesel fuel hydrocarbons, the Hawaiʻi Department of Health confirmed, saying the results are consistent with odors detected at the sample sites.

Test results received Thursday night show that hydrocarbons associated with diesel fuel were detected at 350 times the level the health department considers safe. A California lab found 140,000 parts per billion of total petroleum hydrocarbons as diesel, or TPH-d. The DOH Environmental Action Level is 400 ppb.

The water in the Red Hill shaft also showed gasoline hydrocarbons 66 times higher than the level considered safe. The lab found total petroleum hydrocarbons as gasoline at 20,000 ppb. The EAL for TPH-g is 300 ppb.

Trace levels of petroleum were also detected in water samples taken from the Aliamanu Child Development Center and some housing units on the Navy’s distribution system.


Updated 2 p.m. Thursday

The Hawaiʻi Department of Health reported Wednesday that diesel fuel levels more than double the limit for drinking water were found in the Navy’s ʻAiea-Halawa Shaft. As a precaution, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply has shut down two wells, in addition to the Halawa Shaft shut down last week.

But the Navy now says, "After reviewing the detailed results from the independent laboratory conducting the testing, the Navy determined that the sample was not from the Halawa well but from an off-service section of the water distribution system."

The ʻAiea-Halawa Shaft is one of three groundwater sources providing drinking water to the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system. Last week, the Navy detected petroleum at its Red Hill Shaft after military housing residents complained of fuel-like odors coming from their tap water.

The Navy said the sample was taken on Sunday, Dec. 5, and told the health department the shaft has been offline since last Friday, Dec. 3. The Navy said a sample collected on Dec. 3, before the well was off service, indicated that the water was safe.

DOH said it will collect its own samples from the shaft on Thursday.

The Navy’s water samples found petroleum hydrocarbons diesel range organics at a level of 920 parts per billion. The health department's environmental action level is 400 parts per billion. An environmental action level is a risk-based level in which no human health effects are expected.

Honolulu Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernest "Ernie" Lau said, "That's interesting that the Navy issued a press release because after our initial call from the Navy informing us about the 900 parts per billion detection of TPH diesel, I got a call a couple hours later from the same person in the Navy basically trying to downplay that the test result was not indicative of what's in the aquifer."

The Navy’s ʻAiea-Halawa Shaft and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply’s Halawa Shaft are different water distribution systems, located 1.5 miles apart.

As a precaution, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply has shut down its ʻAiea Well and Halawa Well after learning of the Navy's second contaminated shaft. BWS already shut down its Halawa Shaft last week as a precaution to prevent contamination.

"So my question to that individual was: well, isn't the water in that pipe that you took the sample from, coming out of the shaft? If it's not coming out of the shaft, then where did the diesel come from?" Lau said a press conference. "So my recommendation to the Navy and to the Department of Health is to take some repeat samples to validate the test results — but for now, we're just going on the basis that it's gotten into the aquifer."

"We're taking the precautionary measures, shutting our wells down that pump from the same aquifer because, folks, we cannot afford to repeat what the Navy's customers are experiencing right now," Lau added.

Lau has asked Central Oʻahu and Honolulu residents to use water wisely. The BWS Halawa shaft supplies about 20% of potable water to urban Honolulu. The ʻAiea and Halawa wells together supply about 1.85 million gallons of water per day to the public, Hawaii News Now reports.

BWS said it took samples earlier this week from the ʻAiea Well and Halawa Well and sent them to a U.S. mainland test lab. Results are expected late next week.

DOH recommends all Navy water system users, including pets, 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 Navy, meanwhile, said Tuesday it will stop operations at its Red Hill fuel storage facility until the completion of its own investigation into how petroleum got into tap water. In a memo dated Tuesday, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro said “corrective actions shall be performed as expeditiously as possible.”

The Navy previously said it was suspending use of the massive fuel storage complex near Pearl Harbor following days of complaints that tap water smells like fuel and has sickened some people.

But the Navy also informed Hawaiʻi officials it was contesting a state order demanding that the suspension remain in effect until independent evaluators can ensure that appropriate actions are taken to protect drinking water.

State officials want the Navy to treat contaminated drinking water and remove fuel from the massive 20 underground storage tanks at the complex called the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.

In response to the memo, Hawaiʻi's deputy director of environmental health said state officials appreciate the Navy's suspension of operations but that an independent analysis of the situation is still needed.

The state order “provides clear parameters to pause operations, treat contaminated drinking water and safely defuel the Red Hill underground storage tanks,” said the deputy director, Kathleen Ho.

It also "ensures that this framework remains in place until an independent assessment can ensure that appropriate actions are taken to protect human health and the environment,” Ho said in a statement.

The Navy will consult with an independent third party to assess operations and system integrity of the tank facility and develop a plan for necessary repairs, said the Navy memo, which was made public Wednesday.

“The recent incident at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, in which military housing units and other facilities received tap water containing petroleum products is not acceptable,” the memo said.

The Navy’s water system serves about 93,000 people in and near Pearl Harbor and nearly 1,000 military households have complained about their tap water. Some said they suffered ailments such as cramps and vomiting after drinking it recently.

Updated: December 9, 2021 at 10:45 AM HST
Updated with announcements from the U.S. Navy and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply.
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