The U.S. Navy is suspending the use of a World War II-era fuel tank farm above a Hawaii aquifer after petroleum leaked into Honolulu’s water supply and government officials called for shutting down operations.
Petroleum was detected in a water sample from the Red Hill fuel tank farm last week after nearly 1,000 households complained about their tap water smelling like fuel or of ailments like stomach cramps and vomiting. The aquifer that sits above the tank farm supplies nearly 20% of urban Honolulu’s drinking water.
Naturally found underneath the Earth’s surface, petroleum is a fossil that can cause vomiting, diarrhea, headache and confusion if it’s ingested, inhaled or exposed to skin.
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro made the announcement during a briefing with reporters at Pearl Harbor after problems surfaced about two weeks ago on and near the base.
The issue was first announced on Nov. 30 when the Hawaii Department of Health said numerous people using the Navy’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, including two elementary schools, complained of gasoline-like odor. The following day, initial test detected petroleum in one water sample, as residents were urged to find alternative water resources for drinking, cooking or oral hygiene.
On Friday, the Navy announced samples from their Red Hill well had petroleum, indicating the the chemical was coming from that well. A spokesperson for the Navy told the Associated Press the well had been closed since Nov. 28 out of an “abundance of caution.”
“Test results confirming contamination of drinking water at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam show that the Navy is not effectively operating the World War II-era facility,” Hawaii Gov. David Ige and the state’s congressional delegation said in a statement posted on Twitter. “We are calling for the Navy to immediately suspend operations at Red Hill while they confront and remedy this crisis.”
The Red Hill well contains 20 large underground fuel tanks that date back to World War II, according to the Associated Press. The Navy built the tanks, each as tall as a 25-story building, in two rows of 10 inside a mountain ridge three miles inland from Pearl Harbor.
The water supply provides water to around 93,000 people living in Pearl Harbor, as it holds up to 250 million gallons of water.
The Navy has not said what could have caused petroleum to get in the water, but the Associated Press reported a water and fuel mixture leaked from a fire suppression system drain line into a lower tunnel in the Red Hill fuel tank farm. At the time, the Navy said no fuel leaked into the environment during the incident.
Because of the leak, the state’s Board of Water Supply said it had to shut down the Halawa Shaft, which it says is the largest water source on the island of Oahu. The department added because the Red Hill well was shut down, water was instead being sent through the Halawa Shaft.
“We are deeply concerned that we were not notified immediately by the Navy regarding the shut down of their Red Hill water source,” Ernest Lau, manager and chief engineer for the Board of Water Supply, said in a statement.
The Hawaii State Senate said in a tweet Sen. Glenn Wakai believes the issue is “man-made disaster” and the Navy “really has to pick up the pace in which it addresses solutions.”
The Navy said it will flush clean water through the distribution system to clear residual petroleum products from the water, which could take up to 10 days. It also pledged to investigate how petroleum got into the water supply.
The water shut down comes as the state is dealing with extreme weather. The islands were hit with heavy rain on Monday, with most areas experiencing 10-to-15 inches of rain. All islands are under flood watch, and Ige urged residents on Sunday to prepare for landslides, road closures and damaged homes, according to Hawaii News Now.
Contributing: Doyle Rice, USA TODAY; The Associated Press