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Board of Water Supply asks President Biden for help on Navy’s Red Hill fuel tanks

Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam (US Navy/Released)

The head of Honolulu’s Board of Water Supply has asked President Joe Biden to intervene in the ongoing water pollution crisis that has affected the Navy’s drinking water system, warning that further petroleum contamination of Oahu’s aquifer will have “devastating effects that could take decades to resolve.”

Ernie Lau, manager and chief engineer of the Board of Water Supply, in Monday, asked Biden to order the U.S. Department of Defense to immediately empty the Navy’s Red Hill fuel tanks and relocate them away from Oahu’s drinking water aquifer.

Thousands of residents living in and around Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam began reporting last month that their tap water smelled like fuel and that they were experiencing health effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes and headache. Navy and state health officials later confirmed that the Navy’s Red Hill drinking water shaft was contaminated with petroleum that is believed to have come from the Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, which contains 20 massive underground fuel tanks.

The tanks have long posed a risk to the Navy’s drinking water, as well as the Board of Water Supply’s Halawa well, which provides about 20 % of the drinking water for urban Honolulu in neighborhoods stretching from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai. The Board of Water Supply has since shut down its Halawa shaft and two other wells as a precaution, in case the Navy’s petroleum contamination migrates to other areas of the aquifer and its drinking water wells.

Those wells have not tested positive for contamination, and the Board of Water Supply has stressed that its water system remains safe.

Earlier this month the state Department of Health ordered the Navy to clean up the contamination, remove the fuel from its tanks and assess the safety of its operations before coming back to the state to request permission to resume operations.

The Navy is contesting that order and, in particular, the requirement that it empty the tanks. Navy officials have stressed that the fuel facility is critical for national security and provides the war reserve fuel supply for the Indo-Pacific theater.

The Board of Water Supply has raised alarms about the facility and its threat to Oahu’s supply of fresh water since 27, 000 gallons of fuel leaked from the facility in 2014. The Red Hill tank farm has a long history of leaks dating back to its construction in the 1940s, according to Navy documents. Analyses of the facility have warned that the risks of leaks will only increase in coming years as the facility ages.

“I am writing to implore you to urgently intervene in this serious situation to protect Hawaii’s fresh ­water aquifer that serves residents and businesses on Oahu, where the population has reached a million people, ” wrote Lau in his letter to Biden. “Hawaii is beginning to make a slow but steady recovery from the pandemic, and water contamination would be a serious setback, crippling our visitor-industry based economy.”

Lau said that when Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro visited Hawaii earlier this month to address the crisis, “we were led to believe the Navy had turned the corner.” But Lau said the Board of Water Supply was soon “disheartened ” to learn the Navy would fight the state’s emergency order.

Lau said many in the community are “keenly aware ” of the importance of the military’s presence in Hawaii to national security, as well as its contribution to the local economy.

“However, we believe this symbiotic relationship must be based on reciprocal respect for Hawaii’s people and our national security resources, ” wrote Lau. “Blatant disregard for our water supply is short-sighted and, ultimately, will greatly diminish the value of Hawaii as a strategic geographical location in the Pacific for the military.”

A spokeswoman for the Board of Water Supply said that so far there has been no response from the Biden administration.

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