More than three thousand military members and their families were forced to relocate last month (Dec 2021) after a petroleum leak at Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility contaminated Honolulu’s drinking water supply.
The state’s health department issued an order to the US Navy to halt ongoing operations at the World War II-era fuel facility, after test results confirmed the petroleum leak following weeks of complaints from the public regarding water quality.
The fuel tank is located directly above an aquifer which supplies 20% of urban Honolulu’s drinking water.
As reported in Stars and Stripes, during a virtual briefing to member of the Hawaii State Legislature Adm. Samuel Paparo confirmed that test results indicated that the water had been contaminated by a relatively recent spill.
“So from the test results and engineering analysis that we’ve done today, it appears some quantity of JP-5 jet fuel entered the Red Hill well in a single event, likely from the Nov. 20 spill, and then subsequently pumped from that well and distributed throughout those portions of our Navy’s water distribution system.”
According to the Hawaii Department of Health, samples from the Navy’s Red Hill drinking water shaft revealed the level of petroleum detected was 350 times more than the safe level in drinking water.
Despite multiple reports of fuel leaks from the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility over the past decade and growing concern from residents and government officials, the US Navy maintain that ongoing operations at the facility are essential to national security.
In a Tweet posted on 7 Dec 2021, Gov. David Ige wrote “Hawaiʻi’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. There are still important questions that need to be answered and the Order will help get there."
Alongside halting operations, Hawaii’s State Department of Health order also requires the Navy to take immediate steps to install drinking water treatment at the Red Hill Shaft, to submit a work plan to assess system integrity and to defuel the underground storage tanks within 30 days.
David Day, Hawaii’s deputy attorney general, wrote in his recommendation to uphold the order in full: "The evidence shows that the Red Hill Facility is simply too old, too poorly designed, too difficult to maintain, too difficult to inspect, along with being too large to prevent future releases."
The Navy, who has since released a timeline for cleaning out the fuel from the well, has said it will challenge the state’s order to defuel the underground tanks.
“Our first step in cleanup is to directly flush a full-system volume of clean water through our distribution system,” he said. “This system volume is about 25 million gallons. How fast the system-flush can be completed is obviously very dependent on how fast we can flush. It could be completed as quickly as four days or it could be much longer.” VaRear Adm. Dean VanderLey, head of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Pacific told lawmakers.
The Navy has imported two water filtration units to Hawaii from the mainland which have the capacity to filter up to 10 million gallons a day, Stars and Stripes have reported.
According to VanderLey, despite the challenges associated with assembling and connecting the units, the goal is to have them up and in full operation within two to three weeks.