The Navy will pause all operations at its Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage facility until an investigation into the source of petroleum in drinking water at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii is completed.
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro said in a news release that he directed the pause with hope that “this never happens again.”
The move comes after the Navy previously said it would contest an order to suspend operations at the site from the Hawaii Department of Health, but did not detail why.
The health department ordered the Navy to halt operations at the fuel storage facility on Monday after a tainted water crisis forced more than 700 people from their homes. Families have reported vomiting, skin burning, intense headaches, diarrhea and a strong odor of fuel.
Testing revealed petroleum hydrocarbons and vapors in the water, and a Navy official confirmed a petroleum leak was the cause.
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. It will also continue to isolate the Red Hill and Halawa wells until buildings that are supplied with their water meet EPA drinking water standards.
“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.”
Navy was recently fined $325,182 for violations
A month before residents became ill Thanksgiving weekend, the department of health cited the Navy for “violations related to operation and maintenance of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility on Oahu.”
“The violations were discovered during a routine DOH compliance inspection that took place from Sept. 28, 2020 through Oct. 9, 2020,” the health department announced October 27.
“The NOVO (notice of violation and order) consists of five counts with a total penalty in the amount of $325,182.”
The health department said those counts include:
- Failure to operate and maintain ongoing corrosion protection to metal components of the portion of the Navy’s tank and piping that contain regulated substances and are in contact with the ground. This violation resulted in a $30,000 penalty.
- Failure to perform line tightness testing of repaired piping before return to service, resulting in a $179,982 penalty.
- Failure to perform an annual liquid tightness test on spill prevention equipment to prevent releases to the environment. This resulted in a $22,950 penalty.
- Failure to perform an adequate visual walk-through inspection of hydrant pits, resulting in a penalty of $2,250.
- Failure to maintain adequate release detection for two double-walled underground product recovery storage tanks, resulting in a $90,000 penalty.
The Hawaii Department of Health regulates underground storage tanks in the state, “having been authorized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to run an approved state program since 2002,” the health department said.
‘You have failed the community’
The Navy said it shut down its Red Hill water well on November 28 after families living on base reported symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches and skin-related concerns.
“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 has 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.
Health officials demand the Navy defuel Red Hill underground tanks
State health officials want more than just a halt in operations at the fuel storage facility. According to Gov. David Ige, the health department’s order also called for the Navy to:
- Install a drinking water treatment system at the Red Hill well, which was shut down November 28 after residents reported symptoms
- Submit a work plan to assess system integrity
- Defuel the Red Hill underground storage tanks within 30 days of corrective action
“Hawai’i’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,” the governor tweeted on Monday.
“There are still important questions that need to be answered and the Order will help get there.”
The Honolulu Board of Water Supply is encouraging the Navy to remove fuel from the Red Hill storage facility, BWS manager and chief engineer Ernest Lau told CNN.
Lau suspended operation of the Halawa Shaft on Thursday. The shaft is Oahu’s largest water source serving Honolulu residents and pulls from the same aquifer as the Navy’s Red Hill well.
Lau said he won’t resume operation at Halawa until the fuel is removed from Red Hill.
Honolulu is now relying on its other wells to maintain water service to its customers, which Lau said isn’t posing a huge problem during the current wet season. But the system could become strained during the summer months.
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