Hawaii residents call on Navy to address jet fuel water contamination

Residents still have concerns following a 2021 jet fuel leak.

August 31, 2022, 9:37 AM

A lawsuit alleges the Navy "harbored toxic secrets" after jet fuel leaked from a storage facility in Hawaii operated by the Navy, contaminating locals' drinking water and sickening hundreds of families.

“You've got American citizens being poisoned by an American asset on American soil,” Army Major Amanda Feindt, whose family is suing, told ABC News.

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 pinpointed back to the jet fuel leak from the nearby Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage 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.

Numerous families allege that they’re still battling long-term, chronic health issues in the lawsuit. A PGA golf professional says he has had five surgeries since and continues to battle internal bleeding. One family said it has been plagued with abdominal pain, vomiting, memory loss, skin rashes, brain fog, eye irritation, seizures, and teeth and gum issues, all according to the lawsuit.

In this image provided by the U.S. Navy, a tour is conducted at the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility near Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Aug. 26, 2019.
Shannon Haney/U.S. Navy via AP, FILE

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.

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 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.

"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.

PHOTO: People hold signs in front of the Hawaii state Capitol during a rally calling for the closure of the Navy's Red Hill underground fuel storage facility near Pearl Harbor, Feb. 11, 2022 in Honolulu. Late last year jet fuel leaked into drinking water.
People hold signs in front of the Hawaii state Capitol during a rally calling for the closure of the Navy's Red Hill underground fuel storage facility near Pearl Harbor, on Feb. 11, 2022 in Honolulu. Late last year jet fuel leaked into drinking water and showed up in military family homes. Many families became ill or developed rashes after bathing in and drinking the water.
Caleb Jones/AP, FILE

The Navy has since released a plan, stating that defueling the underground storage tanks may take until the end of 2024, identifying December 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 on the lawsuit and the demands 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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