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Hawaii health officials order Navy to clean up contaminated drinking water after families are forced out of their homes

By Natasha Chen, Amy Simonson and Tina Burnside, CNN

The Hawaii Department of Health has demanded the Navy immediately halt operations at a Navy fuel storage facility after a leak led to contaminated drinking water — forcing 700 people from their homes and sickening families.

The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility is located 100 feet above the Red Hill aquifer — which supplies drinking water to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and other areas of Hawaii.

The fuel storage facility was built during World War II and can store up to 250 million gallons of fuel, according to the Navy.

Testing revealed petroleum hydrocarbons and vapors in the water, the Navy said Friday.

On Sunday, US Pacific Fleet Deputy Commander Rear Adm. Blake Converse confirmed a petroleum leak was the cause.

Navy officials informed the Department of Health Tuesday morning of their intent to contest the suspension order, according to Hawaii Department of Health spokesperson Katie Arita-Chang.

The Department of Health and Navy are negotiating the terms of a continuance, Arita-Chang said.

A sickened mom said her family made multiple ER visits

The military has offered alternative housing for all service members and civilian employees living near the base. As of Sunday, Converse said the military was covering hotel room costs for more than 700 people.

The Navy said it had shut down its Red Hill water well on November 28 after families living on base reported symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches and skin-related concerns.

But some families are demanding more action and accountability. During a town hall with Navy officials on Sunday, residents described an array of symptoms.

“I’m here to ask why you weren’t a wingman to protect my 13-month-old son when I was bathing him, when I was giving him a sippy cup full of water from my faucet, when he has been throwing up for days on end,” said one woman, who didn’t give her name.

“I’m here to ask why you weren’t my wingman as my husband and I have had mysterious serious symptoms such as sore throats, burning in my stomach, profuse, unusual sweating, headaches unable to be mitigated, requiring multiple ER visits for additional medications, vomiting, diarrhea, skin irritation,” the woman asked the Navy officials.

On Monday, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro visited the fuel storage facility and said the Navy is getting closer to determining the root cause of the water contamination.

“There is an ongoing investigation that is led by US Pacific Fleet into the cause of the incident,” Del Toro said.

“Once that investigation is complete, we will review those findings and adjust our operating procedures as necessary.”

‘Getting it right is more important than doing it fast’

The first priority is to take care of those affected by the water contamination, Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday said.

“That includes medical care. That includes food and includes water,” Gilday said Monday.

The Navy hopes to restore water service to residents soon, but “the key point here is that getting it right is more important than doing it fast,” Gilday said.

“What we don’t want to do is to move people back into their homes to restore service prematurely before we have the utmost confidence in that system, so that we’re not going through this again.”

Health officials: The Navy should remove fuel from the underground storage

State health officials don’t want just a halt in operations at the fuel storage facility. According to Gov. David Ige, the health department’s order also calls for the Navy to:

  • Install a drinking water treatment system at the Red Hill well, which was shut down November 28 after residents reported symptoms
  • Submit a work plan to assess system integrity
  • Defuel the Red Hill underground storage tanks within 30 days of corrective action

“Hawai’i’s wellbeing and the safety of our residents, including military families, must come first. We cannot have national security without ensuring public health and safety,” the governor tweeted.

“There are still important questions that need to be answered and the Order will help get there.”

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply is encouraging the Navy to remove fuel from the Red Hill storage facility, BWS manager and chief engineer Ernest Lau told CNN.

Lau suspended operation of the Halawa Shaft on Thursday. The shaft is Oahu’s largest water source serving Honolulu residents and pulls from the same aquifer as the Navy’s Red Hill well.

Lau said he won’t resume operation at Halawa until the fuel is removed from Red Hill.

Honolulu is now relying on its other wells to maintain water service to its customers, which Lau said isn’t posing a huge problem during the current wet season. But the system could become strained during the summer months.

A history of fuel leaks

Records show a history of fuel leaks plaguing Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in the past decade, with the most recent leak occurring 11 days before the Navy announced it had discovered contamination in the Red Hill well.

Another incident in May involved the release of more than 1,600 gallons of jet fuel from a pipeline inside the storage facility, according to the Navy.

“An investigation determined that operator error caused the release of 1,618 gallons of jet fuel (JP-5) from a pipeline inside the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility (RHBFSF) on May 6, 2021,” the Navy said. “The release was not from the fuel tanks.”

In October, the Hawaii Department of Health cited the Navy for violations related to operation and maintenance of the facility, records show. The fines and violations resulted from a routine inspection from September 28, 2020, through October 9, 2020, according to the health department.

The Notice of Violation and Order (NOVO) consisted of five counts with a total penalty amounting to $325,182, the Hawaii Department of Health said in a news release.

The Hawaii Department of Health said in a news release that the five counts were:

  • Failure to operate and maintain ongoing corrosion protection to metal components of the portion of the Navy’s tank and piping that contain regulated substances and are in contact with the ground
  • Failure to perform line tightness testing of repaired piping before return to service
  • Failure to perform an annual liquid tightness test on spill prevention equipment to prevent releases to the environment
  • Failure to perform an adequate visual walkthrough inspection of hydrant pits
  • Failure to maintain adequate release detection for two double-walled underground product recovery storage tanks

In January 2014, during the refueling of a tank, the Navy identified a fuel release estimated at up to 27,000 gallons of JP-8 jet fuel, according to the Hawaii DOH.

“U.S. Navy subsequently drained the tank and collected samples from existing monitoring wells. Results taken in and around Tank 5 indicated increases of hydrocarbons in soil vapor and groundwater,” the health department said.

At the time, the agency said the drinking water was in compliance with federal and state “concentrations for drinking water both before and after the January 2014 release.”

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CNN’s Jenn Selva, Jack Hannah and Kelly McCleary contributed to this report.

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