Military members and their families at a Hawaii military base have been relocated due to ongoing problems with contaminated water from a World War II-era fuel tank farm above an aquifer.
More than 3,000 military members and their families have been displaced, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said this week. The relocations follow government officials calling for the fuel tank to be shut down after petroleum was detected in a water sample from the Red Hill fuel tank farm earlier this month.
The aquifer that sits above the fuel tank supplies about 20% of urban Honolulu’s drinking water. The petroleum level was 350 times what is considered safe in drinking water, according to the Hawaii Department of Health, and “gasoline range organics” 66 times the safe level.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige ordered the U.S. Navy to halt operations at the facility, and to take steps to install a drinking water treatment system.
According to Hawaii News Now, the Navy is shipping in large water filtration systems to filter 250 million gallons of water repeatedly in a process that could take up to two weeks.
Lt. Cmdr. John Daly said the filtration system was a “very large capacity version” of a Brita- or pitcher-style filter. Previous efforts to flush the water system were discontinued. News Now reported the Navy first tried flushing the water by opening spigots and fire hydrants.
The Red Hill well contains 20 large underground fuel tanks that date back to World War II, according to the Associated Press. The Navy built the tanks, each as tall as a 25-story building, in two rows of 10 inside a mountain ridge three miles inland from Pearl Harbor.
About 1,000 households reported their water smelling like fuel or complained of symptoms related to petroleum contamination. Two elementary schools also complained about their water. The well has been closed since Nov. 28.
Displaced military members and their families are living in hotels, Austin said. Thousands have been evaluated by medical staff.
Navy officials said the source of the petroleum has been identified as a Nov. 20 jet fuel spill.
“We know now with a high degree of confidence based on water testing results analyzed at a certified, independent third-party laboratory that that contaminant is JP-5 jet fuel,” Adm. Samuel Paparo told state legislators, according to Stars and Stripes.
The fuel “subsequently pumped from that well and distributed throughout those portions of our Navy’s water distribution system,” he said.
According to a memo obtained by The Wall Street Journal, a task force was assembled Dec. 8 to fix the causes of the leak. But an official, who was not identified by the outlet, said the Navy is not considering permanently closing the site.
Meanwhile, Hawaii’s congressional delegation is calling on the House and Senate to make sure the military spends whatever money is available to address the contamination.
“We are deeply concerned that despite this being a crisis of its own making, the Navy may be reluctant to spend the money required to meet the moment because of concerns about unknown future emergency needs or simply not wanting to own the long-term costs associated with this crisis,” lawmakers including Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono.
The Honolulu City Council also asked the Navy to defuel, remove and relocate the fuel storage facility. The Navy has said it will challenge a health department order to remove fuel from the tanks.
“My expectation is that military leaders in Hawaii will continue to do everything they can – as fast as they can – to return residents safely back to their homes and to communicate clearly and frequently the steps they are taking to do so,” Austin said earlier this week.
Contributing: Jordan Mendoza and Celina Tebor, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
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