Contamination in the Navy’s water system, a crisis that has been brewing for decades
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – The Navy’s water crisis is not yet a month old, but the threat posed by the Red Hill underground fuel storage facility has been in the works for decades, according to advocates and heads of government.
Some call it a slow disaster. Others say the threat is only expected to grow.
But whatever happens next, one thing is certain: the problem shouldn’t be fixed anytime soon.
To help the community better understand how we got here and what is at stake, Hawaii News Now has partnered with Honolulu Civil Beat to write a digital special report on the crisis.
Here is what we currently know:
Where are things
The Navy’s water crisis began the weekend after Thanksgiving.
Families living in military housing areas said their water smelled strongly of fuel and some said it made them sick. Hundreds of complaints have been filed in the state and the Navy.
In the days and weeks that followed, the tests confirmed everyone’s worst fears.
[From Civil Beat: How The Red Hill Fuel System Has Threatened Oahuâs Drinking Water For Decades]
âMy house started to smell like a gas station,â said Bonnie Russell, resident of Catlin Park.
Aliamanu Resident Resident Christy Clifford added at a town hall earlier this month: “There has been so much misinformation, no information, nothing given to residents here.”
State tests confirmed that the oil levels in the Navy’s drinking water well at Red Hill were hundreds of times above the drinking water consumption limit.
Oil was also detected in samples from Navy water taps.
The crisis continues to impact the 93,000 customers of the Navy system. They were told that they could not drink the water or use it for cooking or oral hygiene.
Many have also been advised not to use it for household chores, such as laundry.
Meanwhile, thousands of military families have been relocated and accommodated in hotels for what is expected to last weeks or more as authorities scramble to flush lines and remove oil from the Red Hill well.
And the Board of Water Supply is scrambling to keep oil out of the public system. The utility has stopped using three of its wells in an attempt to prevent fuel from migrating.
According to BWS, the Halawa well is particularly vulnerable to contamination because it sucks water directly from the top of the aquifer.
With three of its wells closed so far, the Board of Water Supply relies on other wells closer to Diamond Head to meet the water needs of the City of Honolulu and beyond.
180 million gallons of fuel – 100 feet above the aquifer
As residents of Oahu reeling from news that the drinking water of military families has been contaminated and that the water for the entire community is also at risk, the facility’s scrutiny nearby Navy fuel is intensifying.
But the crisis comes as no surprise to many residents, officials and local conservationists.
For years, they viewed Red Hill as an inevitable environmental and public health disaster.
The cause of the water crisis is still under investigation, but the suspected source is the WWII Navy fuel facility at Red Hill, located upstream of affected military communities. .
The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility is made up of 20 huge pill-shaped fuel tanks and a pipeline system that use the force of gravity to deliver fuel to Pearl Harbor, 2 miles away.
Each tank is large enough to hold the Aloha Tower.
The facility, hastily built in the early 1940s, holds approximately 180 million gallons of fuel and sits just 100 feet above an underground aquifer that provides 77% of the island’s total water .
The reservoirs were built by workers who dug cavities in the volcanic rock of the mountain and built the reservoirs in the holes. And since 1943, the facility has recorded at least 73 fuel leaks totaling at least 180,000 gallons according to the Sierra Club. The Navy, however, disputes these figures.
But in the wake of the water contamination, there have been more and more calls, including from government officials, to empty Red Hill’s fuel tanks and shut down the facility.
The Navy, meanwhile, says Red Hill is a vital national security asset used by the U.S. Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard, and Hawaii National Guard.
Military officials say the installation is still necessary for the US Indo-Pacific Command’s “mission readiness” amid what it sees as growing aggression from Russia and China.
They also promoted Red Hill as a vital fuel source in times of emergency or natural disaster. In this scenario, Red Hill could supply fuel to the airport, Hawaiian Electric, and ships.
“Slow violence … inflicted on the earth”
A series of recent leaks at the facility have posed a growing threat.
In 2014, for example, about 27,000 gallons of fuel leaked from one of the tanks. After this release, groundwater and soil monitoring systems recorded spikes in diesel and petroleum.
The DOH said earlier this year that the location of the Red Hill facility above the aquifer is inherently unsafe, and the DOH Environmental Health Administration said in July that it did not believe Red Hill could operate in a manner that protects human health and the environment.
Meanwhile, other Navy hubs across the country have shut down their own underground fuel facilities built around the same time as Red Hill.
Each of the tanks is made of a thin steel liner which is now corroding. It is surrounded by a concrete hull that the Navy recognizes not being able to access and therefore impossible to maintain.
Navy officials suspect the water contamination crisis was caused by leaks this year.
On May 6, more than 1,600 gallons of fuel spilled from a burst pipeline into the facility’s lower access tunnel. And on November 20, 14,000 gallons of water and fuel leaked from a fire extinguisher line into a tunnel midway between the reservoirs and the Red Hill drinking water well.
[To see the Health Departmentâs sampling results of the Navy water system, click here.]
After confirmation of the contamination of the Navy system, the governor ordered the Navy to suspend all operations at Red Hill, construct a water treatment facility and provide a plan within 30 days to empty the tanks. . The Navy fights the order to empty the tanks, and a legal battle is likely.
âThe reason the state decided to issue this order is clearly that we have fuel in the water system,â Governor David Ige said in a recent interview. “It is isolated at Red Hill, but we want to make sure that no further action is taken that could increase the contamination that is occurring.”
The governor’s order, however, represents a significant change in political winds on an issue that many activists say has not been taken seriously for years.
âWhat is happening under Red Hill may not be visible to the human eye,â activist Kyle Kajihiro said during a recent protest. “But it was a slow form of violence that was inflicted on the land.”
Since 2014, in the aftermath of this large spill, the Board of Water Supply has sounded the alarm alongside the Sierra Club and a small group of community members who have called for the closure of Red Hill.
For now, BWS says its customers don’t have to worry about buying bottled water and is constantly testing its system for any signs of a problem. But this is not the case at the base.
The priority for the Navy now: flushing its water system in order to remove the oil from the water pipes. It is a colossal undertaking and the Board of Water Supply questions its effectiveness. They say if oil got into public water pipes, the flush simply wouldn’t work.
“It would be an extremely catastrophic situation,” said Erwin Kawata, administrator of the BWS program.
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