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Navy dive team is trying to remove fuel from Oʻahu water

Navy red hill fuel contamination diver 121121
Bleu Jackson
U.S. Navy
In this Dec. 11, 2021 photo provided by the U.S. Navy, Mobile Diving Salvage Unit One performs inspection and sampling of a water well near Pearl Harbor. U.S. Navy divers are trying to remove fuel from a water shaft at Red Hill. Divers are beginning to make progress and are now able to start "skimming" contaminants that have floated to the surface. The water supply serves about 93,000 people. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Aja Bleu Jackson)

HONOLULU — U.S. Navy divers are trying to remove jet fuel from the Red Hill water shaft near Pearl Harbor after people using the water in their homes reported becoming sick.

Divers are beginning to make progress and are now able to start “skimming” contaminants that have floated to the surface, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Monday.

“It’s the beginning stages, we’ll have to see where the Navy’s gonna go next. But at least we’re assessing how well we can start skimming,” said Chief Warrant Officer Jose Castilla, commander of Mobile Diving and Salvage Company 1-8.

The water supply serves about 93,000 people.

Navy officials believe about 14,000 gallons of jet fuel spilled at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility inside an access tunnel that provides fire suppression and service lines for the complex.

Water from the Navy’s Red Hill shaft contains high levels of gasoline and diesel fuel hydrocarbons, the Hawaiʻi Department of Health confirmed. Test results showed that hydrocarbons associated with diesel fuel were detected at 350 times the level the health department considers safe.

People using the Navy's water in and near the Pearl Harbor military installation reported becoming ill, and the Navy has moved more than 3,000 families off base into Oʻahu hotels.

A Navy official told state lawmakers last week that the Navy does not believe the contaminated water was caused by a leak from aging underground storage tanks that sit above an aquifer.

When the work began, the Navy dive team had to wear specialized suits to protect them from the hazards in the water. But the suits are bulky and hot and concerns about overheating in the cramped space forced them to change their approach to protect divers.

“Nothing worked really well right off the bat, but we were able to make smattered minor changes in the way we put things together,” said Castilla.

The operation is new to the experienced dive team, which regularly works in difficult underwater situations.

“The logistics, getting all the gear down here, (was) basically trial and error really,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Reed Akey, a four-year Navy veteran from Mobile, Ala. “Stuff would work; stuff wouldn’t work; having to go back to bring different equipment. See if that would work.”

Removing fuel from the system requires workers to pump contaminates into 20,000-gallon (more than 75,000-liter) tanks. The first tank was nearly full and ready to be taken away by truck as of Sunday night.

“There will be some sampling done to see how efficiently we’re getting enough contaminations for the volume of water that we’re actually pumping,” said Castilla. “If we skim too low, we might just keep getting water and not removing enough contamination.”

The affected Navy shafts have been shut down.

The Board of Water Supply said initial tests showed their nearby Halawa shaft was not contaminated. The Halawa shaft supplies drinking water to a broader area of Honolulu.

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.

Rear Adm. Blake Converse said the November spill was cleaned up, but it appears that some of the jet fuel was sent through the Navy’s water distribution system.

The overall water system and water systems in all homes and facilities that have been impacted will be flushed with clean water and Navy officials said they hope to complete that process by Christmas.

The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility supplies fuel for many military planes and ships that operate in the Pacific and its use has been suspended.

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