Navy to Remove Water from Contaminated Well, Continue Flushing System at Pearl Harbor

Soldier unclogs drain while flushing water system at Hickam Elementary School
Utilitiesman 2nd Class Jesus Cedillo, Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command, Hawaii, unclogs a drain while flushing the water system at Hickam Elementary School, Jan. 10, 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jeremy Lemmon Jr.)

The Navy is set to begin removing contaminated water from a well that supplies drinking water to more than 93,000 people under a plan approved by federal and Hawaii state regulators last week.

The service will remove up to five million gallons of water each day from the well known as Red Hill, which became contaminated in late November after a fuel spill at the Navy's Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility. The fuel storage sits atop the aquifer that supplies water to more than 400,000 residents of Honolulu.

According to the plan, the Interagency Drinking Water System Team, or IDWST, will use skimming pumps, booms and absorbent pads inside the well to remove or contain any contaminants. The water then will be moved into a capture zone and passed through a massive carbon filtration system before it is tested and discharged into a stream that feeds into Pearl Harbor.

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The water will be sampled and tested "at each step of the treatment process" and sent to independent labs for testing to ensure that the harbor isn't polluted, according to a statement released Saturday by the IDWST.

"If contaminant levels exceed [Hawaii Department of Health's] acceptable limits at any point, operations will be stopped," officials wrote in a press release.

As the Navy prepares to start clearing out the Red Hill well, it also is flushing the water systems in multiple neighborhoods and beginning to flush and test tap water in affected homes.

    The service has completed flushing and testing of the system in 11 neighborhoods, reporting that the water meets or exceeds Environmental Protection Agency and Hawaii Department of Health standards for safe drinking water.

    On Saturday, the Navy announced, however, that two homes in the Hale Moku and Hokulani neighborhoods failed the tests, with one home exceeding acceptable limits set by the state for diesel-based hydrocarbons by 29% and for oil by 17%.

    Another vacant house had twice the state's level requiring action of semi-volatile organic compounds in its water, at 6.3 parts per billion.

    The Navy said residents were notified and their homes will be flushed again and tested.

    "[The Hawaii] DOH recommends all Navy water system users should avoid using the water for drinking, cooking, or oral hygiene," Navy officials wrote to families in an email Saturday. "This includes consumption by pets."

    The state Department of Health has ordered the Navy to completely drain the fuel facility at Red Hill.

    Under the order, the Navy has until Feb. 2 to provide a "work plan and implementation schedule" for assessing the state of the facility and its systems. The assessment must be submitted to the state for consideration and, once approved, the Navy can begin work to ready the facility for fuel removal and then eventually empty the fuel.

    Two members of the Honolulu City Council wrote President Joe Biden on Thursday urging him to expedite the removal of fuel from Red Hill's tanks, which can hold up to 250 million gallons of jet fuel, diesel and other petroleum products.

    According to Council Members Tommy Water and Esther Kia'aina, the contamination of the Navy's system prompted the Honolulu Board of Water Supply to stop pumping water from three of its wells.

    "We believe the Navy's mishandling of the Red Hill Crisis is jeopardizing national security interests and the overall relationship between the U.S. military and the people of Hawaii," they wrote.

    Of the 19 affected areas on and around Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, only residents of the Pearl City peninsula have been given an estimated date for returning to their homes pending test results.

    If all goes as planned, the residents of 635 homes in Pearl City may return on Valentine's Day.

    -- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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