Navy’s Preliminary Hawaii Water Report Finds System Is Meeting Standards

by Braxton Taylor

The Navy last week released a new report on its preliminary plumbing assessment following multiple complaints of air and water quality issues from residents on its water system.

The assessment, which spanned from October to December 2023, investigated plumbing at 10 homes, drinking water samples, water heaters and water distribution systems at fire hydrants. Samples from the assessment indicated that the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system “continues to meet all state and federal drinking standards, ” according to a Navy news release.

“To date, there have been no detections of total petroleum hydrocarbons (referred to as TPH) above the regulatory-approved 266 parts per billion Incident Specific Parameter throughout the course of the two-year (long-term monitoring ) program and as part of the Navy’s premise plumbing assessment, ” the report read.

However, low-level detections of TPH were found in samples across the water system, and were not limited to homes—the cause of which is “under evaluation.” The Navy also said there was no jet fuel detected.

The assessment was completed “as a direct result of concerns ” reported to the state Department of Health and the federal Environmental Protection Agency by six residents on the JBPHH water system in mid-October 2023.

The concerns stem from the Red Hill water crisis, which began in November 2021 when fuel from the Navy’s underground Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility leaked into the Navy’s water system, impacting 93, 000 people who live in homes served by the water system, including service members, military families and civilians.

As the purveyor of the water system, the Navy is responsible for maintaining the water’s quality and conducts water testing with regulatory oversight from DOH and the EPA.

Earlier this year, an influx of air and water quality complaints from residents at JBPHH flooded the Navy, DOH and the EPA.

The Red Hill Community Representation Initiative directly received over 50 reports in late January and over 70 responses to a poll on the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Water Contamination Support Facebook group page, in addition to complaints posted on neighborhood social media pages. Complaints included a visible sheen on the water and a strong odor and chemical taste.

Erin Thompson, who complained of water quality issues in January, has lived with her family at their home on the Aliamanu Military Reservation since the water crisis began and said that they’ve had issues with their water that still persist to this day.

In January, she drank water from her bathroom sink and was “extremely gastrointestinal sick ” for the next 24 hours. She and her family have also been experiencing skin irritation since December that still keeps them up all night scratching, she said.

“Within the last week and a half, everything’s starting to come back again, and I’m like, ‘Oh, we can’t move out of here soon enough, ‘” Thompson said. She and her family are moving overseas in a few weeks.

Thompson said her water was tested at the beginning of this year, with results coming back indicating low levels of TPH, but the levels were still under the regulatory-approved standard.

“We’ve got four kids and a single income. I haven’t been able to afford water, so when they said, ‘OK, the water is safe, ‘ I was like, ‘What do we do ? Do we trust it or not ? They say it’s safe, ‘” she said. “So we’ve been drinking it, but we’ve also been sick the whole time.”

Tracey Contreras also complained about water quality issues at her house on base at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in January. To this day, she said her water has an odor and is discolored, and that “black stuff ” still comes out of the pipes in her home.

Despite the water meeting state and federal standards, Contreras said she and her husband still avoid drinking it or using their tap water. She said that she and her husband regularly fill a big pot with bottled water and heat it on the stove before carrying it upstairs to their bathroom, where they add cooler bottled water into the pot to cool it down before using it to take turns bathing.

“It’s like we live in the 1800s over here. That’s how we do things here, and as military families, we’re stuck in a different age, ” Contreras said. “I laugh about it because if we don’t, then it would be way worse, but we have to find some way to just get through it and continue, because we’re going to be here for another year.”

In response to the January complaints, the DOH ordered the Navy to test the Waiawa shaft, JBPHH’s only source of drinking water. Results came back negative.

A Navy spokesperson said that observations from the preliminary plumbing assessment of homes, as well as recommendations from the EPA and DOH were “all factors in informing the Navy’s recent actions, including the establishment of the ‘swarm’ team.” The team consists of drinking water experts, including members of several Navy commands, the EPA and DOH, working towards finding the source of low-level TPH detections and creating plans to address them.

“The Swarm team has taken a holistic approach to conduct data trend analysis from the (long-term monitoring ) plan, as well as review how samples are analyzed to determine what refinements and enhancements can be implemented, ” the Navy said in a statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “The Swarm team continues to work closely with the regulators, and the findings, once final, will be made public.”

In mid-February, the Navy announced its Extended Drinking Water Monitoring Plan, which would build upon the previous two-year long-term monitoring plan, which expires at the end of March. The specifics of the plan, including sampling methods, analyte list and protocols, will be made public once they are finalized with approval from the regulatory agencies, the Navy said.

The extended monitoring plan will continue to sample locations across the Red Hill water system, including homes, buildings, water heaters and fire hydrants, to provide “analytical evidence of the absence or presence of fuel-based petroleum hydrocarbons, ” the Navy said. It will also expand testing to include the Manana housing neighborhood and other homes that were not sampled under the long-term monitoring plan.

The Navy also announced its development of a Water Quality Action Team that will respond to consumer concerns and issues, and provide water testing and information to residents and water users.

But Contreras said that when a Navy water specialist and liaison came to her house at the beginning of the month, she didn’t trust the information she received.

“For them to send over somebody and say, ‘Hey, we hired this person to come here and share this information with you, ‘ and for them to sit in your house and come into your home and look at you in the face and say the water is safe, that’s a punch in the face, ” she said.

Moving forward, the Navy said it began a root cause analysis of TPH detections and began taking actions recommended by the assessment’s findings, including continuing and expanding their usage of fingerprinting analysis, reviewing laboratory analysis protocols and evaluating the Navy drinking water distribution system’s operation.

“While detections reported remain below the (regulatory-approved TPH limit ), the Navy remains committed to determining the cause of TPH detections and will continue to closely coordinate with the EPA and DOH to continue providing safe drinking water, ” the report read.

But Thompson said that despite the Navy’s promises to expand their investigation, she wants “the truth and a consistent storyline.”

“They’re testing water, they came out, they sent public health to my house, they established a clinic that I went to, so they’re doing all of this front work, but that doesn’t solve the fact that I’m still sick, and I don’t really have answers, ” Thompson said. “I want truth and a solid timeline and science that can be supported.”

Contreras agreed.

“When you have people and they’re trying to get better and healthier and there’s already a track history over the last couple of years where you can see that this is still hurting people and continues to harm people that were affected in November (2021 ), but it also continues and still is, to this day, affecting people that weren’t here at the height of the contamination, I think it’s important for them to come out and be very honest, ” she said.

The Navy’s preliminary premise plumbing assessment report can be accessed.

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