Petroleum From Red Hill Leaks May Be Lingering In Pearl Harbor Drinking Water

A new EPA report lends credence to complaints that residents say were otherwise falling on deaf ears.

For months, some Pearl Harbor residents have been concerned that residual water contamination from a 2021 fuel spill could be causing ongoing health problems.

They’ve reported oily sheens on their water and rashes on their children. One resident told the EPA they filled their fish tank with tap water and saw all their fish die overnight.

But their water provider, the U.S. Navy, has insisted the water is safe.

Now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is backing residents’ concerns. In an investigative report released this week, the EPA said that recent test results from four homes may suggest a problem in the Navy water distribution system or within the plumbing of Pearl Harbor homes. 

The Navy has been testing the Red Hill well and Pearl Harbor area water spigots for contamination under a regulatory agreement with the EPA and state Health Department. (U.S. Navy photo/2022)

“Sampling results appeared to demonstrate the potential trace presence of petroleum hydrocarbons as diesel in three of the four homes,” the EPA said. 

The agency is now urging the Navy to investigate the root cause. 

The Navy has already launched an investigation into residents’ plumbing. The EPA is asking it to share the test results from that investigation with the EPA and state Health Department and continue testing past a previously agreed-upon target date of February 2024, according to a letter from the EPA’s regional enforcement director, Amy Miller, to Navy Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett, commander of Navy Region Hawaii.

The EPA also advised the Navy to provide alternative water to any residents who complain about their water quality.

Since the Navy declared its drinking water system safe in March 2022, many Pearl Harbor area homes have tested positive for possible fuel components.

In a statement, Navy Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett agreed to conduct further testing, share the results with regulators and continue testing in March 2024 and beyond.

“My team has worked with the EPA and numerous stakeholders to sample and test these homes so all our residents can be assured their water remains safe and clean,” said Barnett, commander of Navy Region Hawaii. “We remain committed to constant communication with EPA and DOH, our residents, and the broader community as we continue to ensure this water remains safe.”  

The contamination crisis began in 2021 when fuel from the Navy’s Red Hill storage facility leaked into the water supply serving more than 90,000 people. Hundreds of people reported health symptoms including vomiting, gastrointestinal issues, rashes and pregnancy complications.

Since then, the Navy has shuttered the Red Hill well and has flushed the system repeatedly with uncontaminated water from a separate nearby source, the Waiawa shaft. 

However, the Navy never replaced the PVC pipes throughout its distribution system or within Pearl Harbor area homes. And many homes are still using appliances like hot water heaters through which contaminated water flowed. Some residents have asked for replacement heaters but have been denied.

One such resident who spoke to the EPA said the Navy told them the water heater would only be replaced if it was “unable to actually heat the water,” according to the agency’s report. 

Residents have suspected for some time that contamination could be leaching from these fixtures and causing continuing or recurring health issues. One resident told the EPA they recently experienced a resurgence of symptoms that first occurred after the November 2021 fuel leak. Testing detected total petroleum hydrocarbons as diesel in that person’s water, according to the EPA’s report. 

Since the health department declared the Navy drinking water system safe in March 2022, many Pearl Harbor area homes have tested positive for possible fuel components. 

A map of Navy testing data prepared by a legal team representing some Red Hill families shows detections throughout this year on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Ford Island, Pearl City peninsula and Iroquois Point, including residences, schools and day care centers.

Results of Navy testing show the presence of total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH) in the drinking water around Pearl Harbor in the first eight months of 2023. However, none of the detections exceeded the state’s action threshold of 266 micrograms per liter, or parts per billion. (Navy data visualized by the legal team of Kristina Baehr/2023)

However, the levels are lower than the state’s environmental action level, or EAL. 

The EAL is not an evidence-based safety threshold for assessing threats to human health. Rather, it is the level beyond which the state and the military have agreed the military must take action on contamination. 

“It’s just a trigger to flushing for remediation,” said Gaudencio “Dennis” Lopez, the chief of the state Health Department’s safe drinking water branch. “It’s being used to trigger cleanup action and making sure you stay under that level.”

The Health Department doesn’t have the authority to declare a safety threshold for fuel, officially called a maximum contaminant level, or MCL, according to Lopez. Only the federal government can do that, Lopez said, and currently the EPA does not have a regulatory threshold for a “safe” level of fuel in drinking water. 

“This report validates our residents concerns that they’ve raised over the past two years, and I think it will give residents some hope that someone actually cares about their health and safety.”

Maj. Mandy Feindt

Nevertheless, the Navy has repeatedly pointed to its test results in response to complaints. In a press release published in October, the Navy said its recent results – the ones the EPA is now concerned about – “meet federal and state safe drinking water standards.”

The results do not indicate the presence of jet fuel in the Pearl Harbor drinking water distribution system, the Navy said.

The Navy noted the total petroleum hydrocarbon detections could be caused by a number of factors.

“TPH can be found in any petroleum-based products including oils from plumbing repairs, household,
biological and industrial products such as mothballs, cooking oils, lotions, lubricants, greases, etc.,” the Navy press release said.

The Navy has also used its regulator-approved sampling plan to fend off community requests for additional action not included in the plan.

At a public meeting in November, Navy Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett, center, responded to a request to replace water heaters by pointing to a regulator-approved sampling plan. The plan does not call for the replacement of appliances. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

At a November meeting of the Fuel Tank Advisory Committee, a state-created Red Hill oversight group, former Pearl Harbor resident and Army Maj. Mandy Feindt suggested there may be an issue with residents’ water heaters. She said the Navy should test hot water and replace the heaters.

Barnett responded that the Navy is doing what’s required under its sampling plan.

It’s that kind of response that makes residents feel they aren’t being heard, Feindt said.

“The Navy keeps hiding behind (the idea that) they’re in compliance, that everything is done in close coordination with the regulators. Well, here’s a regulator calling their bluff,” she said.

“This report validates our residents concerns that they’ve raised over the past two years, and I think it will give residents some hope that someone actually cares about their health and safety.”

Lacey Quintero, another former Pearl Harbor area resident who was sickened by the contamination, said she’s glad the EPA is pushing for an in-depth plumbing investigation, but she’s not happy the Navy will be doing the work.

Lacey Quintero and her family suffered numerous health problems after drinking and bathing in contaminated water. The family moved away from Pearl Harbor in March 2022. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

“Nobody trusts them to do it,” she said. “I don’t think they have any motivation to find a result.”

Even if the results of additional testing show a problem, the remedy – according to the regulator-approved plan – is to flush the system with fresh water. Quintero called that a “fake solution.”

“Obviously, the pipes need to be replaced, and water heaters still need to be replaced,” she said.

The health department’s Lopez agrees with residents that the Navy should have replaced the water heaters right away. But DOH doesn’t have the authority to force the Navy to do that, he said.  

The state only regulates water at the source, such as a water well, Lopez said. It does not have a say over what happens once the water reaches people’s homes.

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