The Navy announced Thursday that its most recent testing shows that its water system no longer has contamination levels above the state Department of Health’s “environmental action limit, ” or the level at which the water is regarded as unsafe for human consumption. But officials acknowledged there’s still work to do.
“Where we are right now is that the HDOH does not recommend that we ingest the water out of an abundance of caution, ” said Chris Waldron of the Navy Marine Corps Public Health Center. “We need to implement this program that we’ve talked about to work comprehensively through the water distribution system, so we’re working this systematically and methodically. We recognize that we want to return people in the home quickly, but our overarching mandate is to do that safely.”
When asked about the Navy’s announcement, DOH spokeswoman Kaitlin Arita -Chang said, “The Department of Health has confidence in its own data. We continue to evaluate our data sets to ensure that safe and reliable drinking water can be restored to Navy Water System users.”
A spokesperson for the Honolulu Board of Water Supply declined to comment on the Navy’s test results, saying that it would need to see more data from the Navy and the DOH to comment.
“Nearly 200 million gallons of water has been pumped through our distribution system, ” Navy Capt. Randall Harmayer, public works officer for Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, said Thursday during a digital town hall meeting. “But yet, we still need to flush and make sure that the entire system is clear. So we are going to ensure the water is safe for human consumption through a rigorous and long-term testing protocol.”
The Navy now says it believes a Nov. 20 spill of jet fuel from its underground Red Hill fuel storage facility caused the contamination.
“The investigation as to how that those compounds got into the aquifer continues, ” Harmayer said, but he added that the Navy’s most recent testing results “show today’s existing system is safe and there’s no contamination above the DOH’s EAL.”
Navy salvage divers—some of whom are living temporarily in hotels with their families because they lived in affected areas—are working in the Red Hill well to remove contaminants.
“While it’s still an ongoing investigation, we feel very comfortable saying that there are unlikely to be long-term health effects associated with this particular incident, ” said Cmdr. Robert Uniszkiewicz, a Navy public health specialist. “That being said, we are set up to have long-term monitoring of all health issues for all those that have been involved.”
The military has set up a database of people it believes may have been affected by contamination. The contamination has affected Navy, Air Force and Army housing areas that use the Navy’s system, prompting a response from each branch.
While Navy leaders told the state Legislature on Dec. 10 that they hope to have families returning home by Christmas, earlier that day Army leaders told residents of affected areas that they were looking at six to eight weeks at best.
“I have zero confidence in anything the Navy says at this point, ” said Wayne Tanaka, director of Hawaii’s Sierra Club chapter. “Just in the past two months, whistleblowers have come forward saying Navy officials wrongfully withheld information in legal proceedings regarding Red Hill. Navy officials told sick families displaying all the symptoms of petroleum poisoning that they had ‘no indication’ their water was unsafe, and the Navy shut down their Red Hill shaft when they suspected that it was contaminated—which it was—without telling the Board of Water Supply for days.”
In a news release Thursday announcing the results, the Navy said it uses a contractor to collect daily water samples and that these samples are sent to the mainland for testing of petroleum products by third-party certified laboratories. Navy officials did not respond to questions about what company collected the samples or what labs tested them.
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