On Thursday, the Navy confirmed what residents had feared about the Red Hill drinking water well that serves the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam area: Petroleum has been found in the water. “We have pretty conclusive indications that there are volatile petroleum products in the well and we determined that it is the likely source of the contamination of our water distribution system across the Navy system,” U.S. Pacific Fleet Deputy Commander Blake Converse said during a virtual town hall.
The news comes five days after residents began complaining that they had fallen ill from the water, which smelled suspiciously like fuel. The water system itself has been shut down, impacting around 100,000 amidst fears that the contamination could spread to other water systems. Speaking earlier on Thursday at a House Armed Services Committee hearing, Rep. Kai Kahele grilled the Navy about the contamination, calling the situation “a crisis that we have not seen in Hawaii.” Lawmakers including State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim and State Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson have also been critical of the Navy’s slow response.
The Navy has yet to reveal the cause of the contamination, though many suspect last month’s spill of 14,000 gallons of fuel and water may be to blame. An investigation has been opened by the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which is also probing a pipeline leak that spilled more than 1,600 gallons of fuel in May. The Navy previously found that the leak was due to human error and that it likely impacted the environment. The U.S. Pacific Fleet is looking to see if fuel from the May 6 leak may have been found in the Nov. 20 spill.
Though Converse said Red Hill had been “isolated” since Sunday and no water has come from that well, environmentalists fear that wells beyond the valley where Red Hill is located are still at risk. The Board of Water Supply slowed its pumping so that the Halawa shaft that typically delivers 10 million gallons per day was halved. Board of Water Supply Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau explained the precautionary step being taken by the industry.
“If contamination has gotten into Red Hill shaft, to the degree that it affects the taste and odor of the water and the safety of the water, and if they stop pumping and we continue to pump at a high rate, we’re actually hastening the movement of the fuel across the valley,” Lau told Honolulu Civil Beat. He also called for swift action to be taken in what Lau believes is a “disaster unfolding before our eyes.”
“The latest chain of events that have occurred only in the last few months are pretty alarming. Quick action is needed to protect the water resources and the safety of our drinking water. We can’t really delay action anymore,” Lau added. The Hawaii Department of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency are still assessing the situation and are expected to issue a report by the end of the year.
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