The Navy will appeal a Hawaii Department of Health order to halt operations at a fuel site linked to contaminated tap water at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, where families claim they have been sickened.
The Navy stated in a letter to the health department on Tuesday that it would contest the order, but did not explain why.
The Navy is in talks with state health officials, according to Katie Arita-Chang, a spokesperson for the Hawaii Department of Health.
On Monday, the health department ordered the Navy to halt operations at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility after a contaminated water crisis forced the evacuation of over 700 people. Families have reported vomiting, skin burning, severe headaches, diarrhea, and a strong fuel odor.
The Red Hill fuel facility is located 100 feet above the Red Hill aquifer, which provides drinking water to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and other areas of Hawaii. Testing revealed petroleum hydrocarbons and vapors in the water, and a Navy official confirmed the cause was a petroleum leak.
The Navy was cited by the Department of Health for “violations related to the operation and maintenance of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility on Oahu” a month before residents became ill over Thanksgiving weekend.
“The violations were discovered during a routine DOH compliance inspection that occurred from September 28, 2020 to October 9, 2020,” the health department said on October 27.
“The NOVO (notice of violation and order) is made up of five counts with a total penalty of $325,182.”
The Hawaii Department of Health oversees underground storage tanks in the state, “having been authorized by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to run an approved state program since 2002,” according to the health department. The Navy said it shut down its Red Hill water well on November 28 after families on base reported nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, and skin problems.
“I couldn’t breathe because my house began to smell like a gas station. I was choked, “said Bonnie Russell, a local. “I opened all the windows for ventilation, but it took a long time for the fumes to dissipate.”
All service members and civilian employees living near the base have been offered alternative housing by the military. Rear Adm. Blake Converse, Deputy Commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, stated on Sunday that the military was covering hotel costs for over 700 people.
Residents, on the other hand, demanded more action and accountability. Residents described a variety of symptoms during a separate town hall meeting with Navy officials on Sunday. “I’m here to ask why you weren’t a wingman to protect my 13-month-old son when I was bathing him, giving him a sippy cup full of water from my faucet, when he’s been throwing up for days on end,” one woman, who did not give her name, said.
“I’m here to ask why you weren’t my wingman because my husband and I have had mysterious serious symptoms such as sore throats, burning in my stomach, profuse, unusual sweating, headaches that won’t go away, requiring multiple ER visits for additional medications, vomiting, diarrhea, and skin irritation,” the woman said to the Navy officials.
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro visited the fuel storage facility on Monday and stated that the Navy is getting closer to determining the root cause of the water contamination.
The top priority, however, is to care for those who have been impacted by the water contamination, Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday said.
The Navy hopes to restore water service to residents as soon as possible, but “the key point here is that getting it right is more important than getting it done quickly,” Gilday said.
On Thursday, Lau halted operations at the Halawa Shaft. The shaft, which draws from the same aquifer as the Navy’s Red Hill well, is Oahu’s largest water source serving Honolulu residents.
Lau has stated that he will not resume operations at Halawa until the fuel has been removed from Red Hill.
Honolulu is now relying on its other wells to keep water flowing to its customers, which Lau says isn’t a major issue during the current wet season. However, the system may become overburdened during the summer months.