Hawaii residents call on Navy to address jet fuel water contamination

(NEW YORK) — Activists are calling on the Navy to take action almost a year after the Hawaii Department of Health issued an emergency order against the military agency to address the closure and defueling of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.

“If the Navy has committed to closing the facility, they need to move with the sense of urgency we as the Kanaka Maoli, native people of Hawaiʻi, feel they must,” said resident and protester Keoni DeFranco in an interview with ABC News.

“We have no other home,” DeFranco added.

In November 2021, health officials and the Navy ordered residents of Pearl Harbor and the surrounding area to stop using tap water after dangerous levels of petroleum products were found in the Navy’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system. The source was a jet fuel leak from the nearby Red Hill facility.

Hundreds of families reported petroleum odors coming from residential tap water supplied by the Navy water system, alongside reports of health issues caused by the contaminated drinking water.

The DOH had received almost 500 complaints of fuel or gasoline-like odor from people who receive water from the Navy water system.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, many people remain in temporary housing due to the drinking water crisis. Healani Sonoda-Pale, a Hawaii sovereignty activist, says many are still afraid to drink the water.

“Thousands of O’ahu residents, most especially those still relying on the Navy water system, are still depending on bottled water for their daily needs,” Sonoda-Pale told ABC News. “The employees at the schools directly affected by the last leak are still cautious about their drinking water … even though the Board of Water Supply has said it is drinkable.”

Investigations by the U.S. Pacific Fleet found that the water contamination was a result of the Navy’s “ineffective immediate responses” to the fuel releases at Red Hill. It listed the Navy’s failures in resolving “deficiencies in the system design and construction, system knowledge and incident response training.”

It also said the agency failed to “learn from prior incidents that falls unacceptably short of Navy standards.” The facility leaked 27,000 gallons of fuel from a single tank in January 2014, according to environmental group Sierra Club of Hawaii.

The DOH ordered the Navy to immediately install a drinking water treatment system at the Red Hill Shaft and submit a work plan to assess system integrity. Within 30 days of completing the correction action, the Navy must then defuel the underground storage tanks there.

The EPA partnered with the Navy, Army and the Hawaii Department of Health to restore safe drinking water conditions to the affected residents and workers. The agency say they completed drinking water restoration in March 2022.

The Navy has since released a plan, stating that defueling the underground storage tanks may take until the end of 2024, identifying Dec. 31, 2024 as the earliest date “that is consistent with the safe defueling of the facility.”

However, that plan was rejected — deemed incomplete and “disappointing” by state officials.

Locals say 2024 is too long to wait for the promise of clean water.

“Until the facility is fully defueled and decommissioned, Oʻahuʻs aquifer will not be safe,” said DeFranco.

ABC News has reached out to the Navy for comment but has yet to receive a response.

Activists and residents are asking for a new, improved plan for defueling that speeds up the timeline to ensure residents have safe water sooner.

“We fear the Navy will continue to backpedal, stall and drag out the timeline while our aquifer is currently experiencing petroleum contamination directly as a result of their neglect. Red Hill continues to be an ongoing threat to life on Oʻahu,” said DeFranco.

The Red Hill storage facility sits directly above the Southern Oʻahu Basal Aquifer.

According to the DOH, the Navy is responsible for ensuring safe water for nearby residents and ordered the agency to provide alternative drinking water for the roughly 93,000 people who may have been affected.

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