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Toxic foam leak could delay scheduled Red Hill defueling timeline

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Joint Task Force Red Hill

It's been a little more than a week since we learned of a leak of a toxic firefighting foam at the Navy's Red Hill underground fuel facility.

This fluid is often referred to as polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly abbreviated to PFAS, and it is a forever chemical because it doesn't break down in the environment easily.

The military says cleanup of contaminated soil in the immediate spill site has been completed but it will continue to work with the EPA and state health officials on other aspects of the contamination.

It expects the results from soil testing next week.

Officials are also testing nine of its water wells as well as its Red Hill shaft for these dangerous chemicals.

The Conversation talked to Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau and Deputy Manager Erwin Kawata. They were able to visit the spill site the day after the incident and are encouraged by the Navy’s actions so far, but they are calling for additional testing.

Lau says that the testing for these chemicals comes back faster than that for petroleum testing. He estimates about three or four weeks.

He says that they had a detection two years ago, which was information they reported to the Department of Health and then released to the public.

"We're demanding that it'd be done on a weekly basis, because we think this is going to move in through the environment well, through the ground, and may eventually reach the groundwater," Lau says.

He says that PFAS are water soluble, so if they reach groundwater, the chemical could be difficult to remove and hazardous.

This spill puts delays on the defueling of Red Hill, which Lau says would resolve both issues once the use of PFAS becomes unnecessary with the fuel gone.

"As soon as they get the 104 million gallons out out of Red Hill, perhaps they don't even need this firefighting foam system anymore," Lau says. "They can remove all these other problematic environmentally risky chemicals from being over our aquifer."

This interview aired on The Conversation on Dec. 8, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

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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