The Navy reported dangerous levels of petroleum contamination in a second ground water source at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii on Wednesday, state health officials said, expanding the scope of a tainted water crisis that has already forced hundreds from their homes and reportedly sickened military families.
The Navy reported diesel fuel levels more than double the Hawaii Department of Health’s limit were detected in samples collected from the Aiea Halawa Shaft on Sunday, the health department said in a statement.
The Aiea Halawa Shaft is one of three ground water sources that provides drinking water to the military base, the statement said.
The Navy said testing at the shaft found 920 parts per billion of total petroleum hydrocarbons diesel range organics (TPH-d), the health department said. The state’s acceptable level of TPH-d is 400 parts per billion.
“The level of this contaminant poses a public health threat, and is considered unsafe to drink,” said Kathleen Ho, deputy director for environmental health, in the statement. “This news is concerning — especially as the cause of the petroleum release into the Navy’s water system remains unknown. We will continue to take all possible action to protect public health and the environment.”
The Aiea Halawa Shaft has been offline since Friday, the Navy told health officials, five days after it shut down the Red Hill Shaft after families living on base reported symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches and skin-related concerns.
Initial testing at the Red Hill Shaft revealed petroleum hydrocarbons and vapors in the water, the Navy said Friday.
On Wednesday, the Navy told state officials the source of pollutant in the Red Hill Shaft was identified as jet fuel, health department spokesperson Kaitlyn Arita-Chang told CNN.
Operations halted at fuel storage facility
The Navy is pausing all operations at its Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage facility until an investigation into the source of petroleum in the drinking water is completed, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro said in a news release Wednesday.
The facility, which consists of 20 underground storage tanks, is connected to pipelines that run 2.5 miles inside a tunnel to the fueling piers at Pearl Harbor, according to the Navy.
Del Toro said he directed the pause with hope that “this never happens again.”
The Red Hill fuel facility sits 100 feet above the Red Hill aquifer — which supplies drinking water to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and other parts of Hawaii. According to the Hawaii Board of Water Supply, nearly one million people on Oahu rely on the aquifer for their water.
The Navy’s suspension of activity came after it previously said it would contest an emergency order from the health department to halt operations there.
Del Toro also said Wednesday the Navy will bring in a third party to assess operations and integrity of the facility and to suggest any necessary changes.
“The safety, health and well-being of our service members, civilians, contractors, their families and our communities here in Oahu is of the utmost importance to me,” Del Toro said in the news release. “This is not acceptable, and the Department of the Navy will take every action to identify and remedy this issue. We will continue to coordinate with federal, state and local entities to restore safe drinking water to the community.”
State officials said they appreciated the Navy’s voluntary pause.
However, they said it didn’t impact an emergency order that sought treatment of contaminated drinking water and the safe de-fueling of the Red Hill storage tanks.
“DOH’s order also ensures that this framework remains in place until an independent assessment can ensure that appropriate actions are taken to protect human health and the environment,” said Ho, the environmental health official at the state health department.
Last week, following the Navy’s announcement of contamination in the Red Hill Shaft, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply suspended operation of its Halawa Shaft.
The Navy’s Aiea Halawa Shaft and the BWS’ Halawa Shaft are two different water systems, the health department said Wednesday. Honolulu’s Halawa Shaft is about 1.5 miles northeast of the Navy’s Aiea Halawa Shaft.
Families say water left them with ‘burning skin,’ nausea and headaches
The Department of Health recommends all Navy water system users, including the Aliamanu Military Reservation, Red Hill and Nimitz Elementary Schools and military housing, avoid using their water for drinking, cooking, or oral hygiene, including for pets.
Users who smell fuel in their water should also avoid using it for bathing, dishwashing or laundry, officials said.
“My house began to smell like a gas station and I couldn’t breathe. I was choking,” resident Bonnie Russell told CNN affiliate KGMB/KHNL. “I opened all the windows for the ventilation, but it still took quite a while for the fumes to clear.”
“I also want to say how disgusted I am at how you have failed the community,” military housing resident Christy Clifford told officials at a town hall meeting last week, according to KGMB/KHNL.
“On Sunday my children took a bath and for 45 minutes afterward they complained of burning skin,” a woman told the military personnel, according to KGMB/KHNL. “On Monday I woke up sick and have been dizzy ever since.”
The military offered alternative housing for all service members and civilian employees living near the base. On Sunday, US Pacific Fleet Deputy Commander Rear Adm. Blake Converse said the military was covering hotel room costs for more than 700 people.
But residents said they wanted more action and accountability. During a separate town hall with Navy officials 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.
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