Naval officials take blame for contamination at Hawaii's Red Hill site

(The Center Square) – Navy officials said the contamination of water from the Red Hill supply was a one-time incident, but lawmakers said they have more questions.

The Navy stores about 250 million gallons of fuel in 20 steel-lined underground tanks, according to the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s website.

Testing last week confirmed the presence of petroleum hydrocarbons diesel range organics 350 times higher than Hawaii Department of Health’s Environmental Action Level (EAL) for drinking water in samples taken from the Red Hill drinking water shaft, according to a news release from the department. The tests also showed gasoline range organics 66 times higher than the EAL.

The tests included samples from a day care center and were conducted by a California lab.

The contaminated water has forced thousands of residents from their homes as the health department has advised residents on the Red Hill water system to avoid using the water for cooking or hygiene. Residents began complaining about a gas-like odor in their water in late November.

Naval officials took responsibility for the leak and said the cause is under investigation during a meeting Friday with Hawaiian legislative leaders. Naval officials identified the contaminant as jet fuel and said the incident is a one-time event they believe happened Nov. 20. Operations at the Red Hill facility are suspended, they said.

Naval officials said Friday more than 3,000 families have been relocated because of the contamination. The crisis also has affected schools and day care centers, they said.

“I’ve done several town halls to understand the needs of our families, and we’ve gone back from every one of those and adjusted our actions to meet the needs of our residents," Rear Adm. Blake Converse said. “We have a 24-7 region emergency operations center set up and fielding calls. We have a medical hotline, and we are in the process of establishing an interactive online registry to document those affected by this event."

It could be weeks before the water is deemed safe again, according to officials.

The incident has prompted questions about the leak and the investigation.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz is calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take over as the lead agency in testing water quality.

“We can’t afford another day of the Navy and state and county agencies disagreeing on the basic question of whether the drinking water is safe,” Schatz said in a statement. “We need a trusted independent agency with deep expertise and a mission of environmental protection to take over.”

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono questioned Adm. Christopher Grady last week during his confirmation hearing to serve as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“The Department of Defense needs to provide answers to the citizens of Hawaii and the nation as a whole about how it can safely protect the aquifer while still storing the required fuel reserve for national security, even if that means moving the fuel elsewhere,” Hirono said.

Lt. Gov. Joshua Green is calling for the storage tanks to be moved above ground.

“We cannot tolerate any contamination to the water and the only way we can guarantee a safe water supply is to eventually get the fuel above ground,” Green said in a recent Twitter post.

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