Navy to extend testing of its water system

Mar. 6—The Navy announced this week that it will continue monitoring its Oahu water system, which serves 93, 000 people, for the next year after a surge in complaints about water and air quality in homes on the military waterline.

The Navy announced this week that it will continue monitoring its Oahu water system, which serves 93, 000 people, for the next year after a surge in complaints about water and air quality in homes on the military waterline.

The announcement comes as the military works to remove the last remaining fuel from the underground Red Hill storage facility, which tainted the Navy's waterline in November 2021, sickening many residents.

"We are doing this because it is the right thing to do, " Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett, Navy Region Hawaii commander, said in a statement. "We have made this deliberate decision as a result of our steadfast commitment to the people of Hawaii, our service members, civilians, contractors and their families."

The Red Hill facility's massive fuel tanks sit just 100 feet above a critical aquifer that most of Honolulu relies on for drinking water. In March 2022 local state and military officials said they had successfully "restored " the drinking water system, and during the same month the Pentagon announced it would begin working toward defueling and permanently closing the Red Hill fuel facility.

But many residents, as well as local environmental activists, remained skeptical that fuel had truly been removed from the system. Since March 2022 residents across the Navy waterline—which includes service members, military families and civilian residents of former military housing areas—have continued making intermittent complaints.

The Navy insisted there were no indications that there was any remaining contamination, and was set to end testing for petroleum this year. But in October EPA investigators tested four homes of residents complaining of symptoms and revealed in a report released in December that three of them had traces of petroleum in the water from their tap. In each case, previous Navy testing had shown no traces.

Since then there has been a surge of complaints of water and air quality by residents. Though officials maintain that testing shows the main water system remains clean, EPA officials now believe fuel may have remained in water heaters and potentially in other pipes or appliances within homes on the system. In February the Navy announced it had gathered a team of "drinking water experts " for new follow-up testing.

On Sunday the Navy described the move to extend testing as "voluntary " and that the new monitoring program was "freely and purposefully developed." In its announcement the Navy said that since monitoring began it has conducted more than 8, 000 samples and that "the data collected demonstrates that Navy's drinking water continues to meet all Federal and State drinking water standards."

The move comes after a series of contentious meetings between military officials and members of the Red Hill Community Representation Initiative—a panel of community members elected by residents to interact with the military and EPA as part of a federal consent decree.

CRI representatives have accused officials of dodging questions and withholding information, while some officials accused CRI members of lacking decorum and being overly hostile. In January officials opted not to hold a scheduled meeting, citing the tone of the previous meeting, and said they would reconvene in February—though members of the CRI held the meeting without them at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

"I don't consider the Navy monitoring the poison they released into our water to be a voluntary action, " said Marti Townsend, a longtime environmental activist in Hawaii who currently chairs the CRI. "It's a must, a bare-minimum must at that. There is so much more they should be doing to clean up the poison and take care of the people and places harmed by Red Hill."

Wayne Tanaka, director of the Hawaii chapter of the Sierra Club, said the CRI "forced the Navy and the EPA to finally acknowledge what government officials had been ignoring for years : that Navy water system users are still seeing visible sheens in their water, that people are still getting sick and that there are in fact detectable levels of contamination coming out of people's taps. It would be ridiculous for the Navy and EPA to discontinue water sampling in light of what is happening, and I am glad they are acknowledging this."

The CRI also has been pushing for the Navy and EPA to expand the chemicals they are sampling to included toxic compounds that can be formed when fuel and water are mixed, and to also test hot water heaters that may be the source of the persistent contamination.

Tanaka said that additionally, the Navy and EPA "must do whatever it takes to prevent any further harm to families and children—including by providing affected residents with sufficient alternative water, and warning new families of the ongoing water quality issues and multi-agency investigations."