The contamination crisis in Honolulu, in which drinking water from the Red Hill well was found to contain petroleum, has only escalated since the Navy slowed pumping at the well last week. The Red Hill well, which provides drinking water to the community at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, has since been shuttered and operation of the fuel tank above a major aquifer has since halted. The Red Hill system alone serves around 93,000 customers, many of whom complained about the water smelling like fuel and falling ill from using it. Over the course of multiple town halls, residents described the horrible effects the water has had on their families. One woman said her children’s skin felt like it was burning after they took a bath in the water. Another resident was forced to put her dog down.
It isn’t just the Red Hill well that has been contaminated, however. The Honolulu Board of Water Supply (BWS) decided to shut down the Aiea Halawa shaft after it was found to have diesel fuel at levels more than double the limit for drinking water. The shaft serves 20% of the island of Oahu and draws from the same source as the Red Hill well. Navy tests revealed that samples of its water contained 920 parts per billion of total petroleum hydrocarbons diesel range organics. The limit set forth by the Hawaii Department of Health is 400 parts per billion. Late on Wednesday, the board shut down the Aiea well and Halawa well as a precautionary measure. Samples from both wells are expected late next week.
BWS Manager and Chief Engineer Ernest Lau called the situation “not acceptable” in a press release. “I am deeply troubled and we have requested all pumpage and test data from the Dept. of Health on the Red Hill Shaft and the Aiea-Halawa Shaft. We need to have this data in order to make solid and informed decisions regarding our system so we can continue to service our customers,” Lau said. The agency is expected to hold its board meeting on Monday. An agenda for the upcoming meeting shows a resolution to address the Red Hill well as the top action item for the board, after approving the prior meeting’s minutes.
Earlier this week, Hawaii Gov. David Ige issued an emergency order urging the Navy to act swiftly in decontaminating its Red Hill well and suspend fuel storage. Filed by the state Health Department, the order calls for a suspension of operations, the installation of a drinking water treatment system at Red Hill, and a work plan and schedule to be submitted within 30 days detailing how the Navy plans to drain fuel from its 20 underground tanks in a safe and timely manner, and submit an assessment within 30 days detailing what can be done to improve facilities so that the Navy can operate them safely. The Navy has vowed to contest the order.
A Navy spokesperson told the Honolulu Civil-Beat that the order was under legal review. A Department of Health hearing on the order has been postponed, though that meeting would’ve made the order “final and enforceable.” Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro pushed back against even having to comply with the order, despite calling the crisis a “horrible tragedy” and signaling his commitment “to rebuilding this trust … It’s not an order,” Del Toro pushed back while speaking at a press conference on Monday. “It’s a request that’s being made.”
In the meantime, hundreds of families have moved into hotels in order to gain access to clean drinking water with the Navy footing the bill. The Navy declined to specify an exact number of how many residents are eligible or have taken the military up on its offer, though a spokesperson said that “a significant percentage” have chosen to do so. The Hawaii Hotel Alliance told the Honolulu Civil-Beat that 1,825 rooms have been made available to effected families. In addition to lodging, they will receive compensation from the Navy for meals.
The emergency option is certainly better than nothing, but with no timeline and little cooperation from the Navy, many worry about how long it will take until they can safely move home and whether they can even trust the Navy at all. According to PBS, the facility that includes Red Hill has suffered from leaks since 1949 with major incidents occurring as recently as May 2021. The pipeline leak, which led to 1,600 gallons of jet fuel being spilled, resulted in the Hawaii Department of Health fining the Navy $325,000 for violations.