The Red Hill Water Contamination Crisis Could Have Been Averted, The Navy and Our Leaders Put the Public at Unnecessary Risk

Hawaii residents was jolted by one of the biggest news to close out this year – the water contamination crisis at Red Hill. The U.S. Navy has confirmed that a water system below the Navy’s fuel tanks have been contaminated with petroleum. That water system serves 93,000 people on Oahu at mostly military bases. About 1,000 households have complained that their tap water smelled like fuel. Residents started to suffer serious health issues from headaches, vomiting, stomach problems, rashes and sores.

And a larger and potentially more devastating scenario is that “the Navy’s contamination could migrate toward the public water source,” warns Chief Engineer Ernie Lau of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply (BWS).

BWS, smart to shut down Halawa Water Shaft immediately
First thing to mention, BWS made the right move to preemptively shut down its Halawa water shaft as a precautionary measure. That shaft — which services 20% of the water for the area from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai, including urban Honolulu – sits less than a mile away from the contaminated Navy’s Red Hill Shaft.

According to BWS, the Navy hasn’t been providing detailed results from their tests of wells in the area. So this has left BWS in the dark as to where that gas leak is headed and the potential for contaminating the Halawa water shaft. BWS couldn’t and shouldn’t have waited, and was right to act swiftly.

This is unacceptable that the Navy isn’t being completely transparent. Top Navy officials have expressed in press conferences that the public’s health is priority number one in dealing with this crisis. So it should be expected that the Navy be transparent and cooperative with the BWS, state and federal (non-military) officials and agencies.

Imminent problem was there for a decade, but ignored
The Navy announced that it plans to clean the contaminated Red Hill Shaft and resume service. But it doesn’t solve the big, underlying problem, which is the Red Hill (water) Shaft is still located under (by just 100 ft) the Red Hill fuel storage facility where the leaks came from that contaminated the water shaft.

Gov. David Ige and the Hawaii congressional delegation was also right to make a very strong statement demanding that the Red Hill fuel storage facility be shut down immediately.

But at the same time, clearly top state government officials must have known for a long time the problems that the Navy’s fuel facility posed, and the potential for contamination to occur as what we’re seeing now.

State and federal elected officials should have been pressuring the Navy to relocate that antiquated Red Hill fuel storage facility years ago. And the governor and Hawaii’s congressional delegation should not be satisfied calling for a suspension of operation, but must finally push for a relocation of that fuel facility to a location far away from a water shaft, and definitely not near to one that happens to be the largest source of water on Oahu (Halawa water shaft) as it is currently positioned.

The distance of the Red Hill fuel storage facility to the Red Hill Shaft and Halawa Shaft must be addressed and included as a solution to this crisis. Otherwise, the risk will always be there for contamination of both water shafts.

Public deserves to have safe drinking water and not have to worry about it
The public has every right to be angry and be demanding this problem be solved swiftly. The truth about politics is often the powers that be will “stay in their lane” so to speak. They will work together, but “stay in their lane.” This crisis is a perfect example of how red flags were ignored and because it’s the “mighty” military involved, action was not forced to correct a problem.

The public was unaware that such dangers to our water system even existed and relies on our leaders to do the right thing, to look after our safety and ensure that our water is safe to drink. This is a “no-brainer” that the distance between fuel tanks and water shafts is too close. As technologically advanced as we are, couldn’t we have identified this problem and began working on correcting it a long time ago?  This is not how government is supposed to work.

As of press time, the Navy also has not given a timeline of their clean up efforts or addressed the fuel facility. Quite frankly, the presence of top military U.S. officials flying in to hold press conferences talking about the public safety, but not being transparent, not offering a timeline nor addressing the main problem – how are we, the public, suppose to interpret this other than it being just “public relations.”

In fairness to the military, they are working ardently on damage control (providing alternative housing for those affected, even temporary stays at hotels). But this is damage control. The public deserves openness to our big questions. Certainly, the Navy is holding public safety as a top concern or even that it’s their highest priority.  But again, the Navy must be far more transparent than it has been.  At least in doing that, it can begin to regain and earn the public’s trust on this specific issue.

The latest development as of press time is Sen. Brian Schatz proposal that the EPA take the lead on the collection, testing, analysis, and public communication for water quality of the Navy’s water system. As a trusted independent agency (and actually it is required by law to implement the Safe Drinking Water Act), the EPA should be, in fact, taking the lead. The EPA is the agency that can restore confidence that the proper safety measures are being taken.

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