Navy’s water contamination flub in Hawaii follows 8 years of warning signs

U.S. military families stationed in Hawaii are dealing with tap water contaminated with petroleum. The cause is unknown, but investigators say a leak from a nearby fuel storage facility operated by the Navy may be to blame. On Monday, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro issued an apology, calling the situation a “horrible tragedy.” But as Stephanie Sy reports, warning signs went ignored.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    U.S. military families stationed in Hawaii and others working in and around the base there are dealing with tap water contaminated with petroleum. The cause is unknown, but investigators say a leak from a nearby fuel storage facility operated by the Navy may be to blame.

    On Monday, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro issued an apology.

    But, as Stephanie Sy reports, there were warning signs.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For days, active-duty soldiers at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii have been distributing water to their own, thousands of military families without clean drinking water due to fuel contamination.

  • Woman:

    I am a single duty — or single active-duty mom to two special needs kids.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    At several town halls in the last week, resident after resident reported harrowing medical problems in their children.

  • Woman:

    On Sunday, my children took a bath, and for 45 minutes afterwards, they complained of burning skin.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And in their pets.

  • Woman:

    We made the heart-breaking choice to put my beloved dog down after a mysterious illness.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The Navy-run water system serves some 93,000 people. About 1,000 households reported smelling fuel in the water starting in late November.

    It took the Navy almost a week to acknowledge the problem. Residents like Audrey Lamagna had been smelling the fuel for days.

  • Audrey Lamagna, Navy Housing Resident:

    I decided, let me just fill up a cup, like a plastic cup, full of water. And what do you know? That cup smelled like fuel.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Lamagna, a military spouse, has a baby and a 7-year-old.

    What went through your mind when you tested the water and you realized you had been bathing your children in it, and that there was signs of fuel in it?

  • Audrey Lamagna:

    I'm poisoning them, and I didn't even know. Like, how sad is that?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The contamination was found in the Navy-run Red Hill well, which sits close to an underground fuel storage facility built during World War II.

    The facility has had a history of leaks dating back to 1949, with 27,000 gallons of jet fuel accidentally released in 2014. Just two months ago, Hawaii's Department of Health fined the Navy $325,000 for violations at the facility, including failure to maintain corrosion protection of the metal tanks.

    The 20 tanks have the capacity to hold 250 million gallons of fuel, and they sit above the island's most important aquifer, which supplies groundwater to 20 percent of Honolulu residents. As a precaution, civilian water authorities shut down a shaft near Red Hill that serves customers in Honolulu.

    Governor David Ige issued an emergency order requesting the Navy come up with a plan to empty the fuel tanks, but it's unclear he has any enforcement authority.

    Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro apologized on Monday during a visit to the base, and announced operations were suspended at Red Hill.

    Carlos Del Toro, U.S. Secretary of the Navy: As long as I'm secretary of the Navy, I pledge to you that we will address all the issues that you just mentioned with sincerity, transparency, with a complete dedication to try to fix this problem.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For now, many families are finding alternate housing, including Audrey Lamagna's. They have moved to a hotel, which the Navy says they will pay for later. Does that work for you?

  • Audrey Lamagna:

    No, it does not, because we live paycheck to paycheck. We're on a single income.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The Navy says it is flushing clean water through its system, which can take up to 10 days.

  • Audrey Lamagna:

    Even if they were to give us the all-clear, quite frankly, I don't trust what the Navy has to say anymore.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Joining me now to discuss the wider implications of the water contamination is the manager and chief engineer of Honolulu's Water Supply Board, Ernest Lau.

    Mr. Lau, aloha and thank you for joining the "NewsHour."

    When did the Navy notify you about the contamination at the Red Hill shaft, and what was your reaction?

    Ernest Lau, Manager and Chief Engineer, Honolulu Water Supply Board: Stephanie, actually, the Navy did not notify us about the drinking water contamination.

    Our state Department of Health notified us on Sunday evening. That was the Sunday after Thanksgiving. But we actually got no official notification from the Navy.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You shut down the Halawa shaft, which serves 20 percent of Honolulu's water customers. Why did you do that? Did you find contamination in water in that well?

  • Ernest Lau:

    Just to be clear, Stephanie, we have not found contamination by fuel in our drinking water in Halawa shaft.

    Halawa shaft represents 20 percent of our supply capacity. So, we took that precaution of shutting it down because we saw what was happening to the Navy. From their drinking water source at Red Hill, Red Hill shaft, they actually ended up pumping fuel into their water system and delivering it to their customers.

    So, as a precaution — and I do not want to put our water customers from the Board of Water Supply, the public, at risk by pumping fuel into their drinking water system. So, we shut down the shaft before we detected any amounts of fuel in the water.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You have been looking at this issue, I understand, since 2014, Ernie, when there was a massive leak of 27,000 gallons of fuel from one of the tanks.

    Does it frustrate you that not more has been done to secure this water source?

  • Ernest Lau:

    We have been working for eight years to ring the alarm bells that this facility needs to be addressed and needs to be either upgraded to double-wall tanks or completely removed.

    But for the last eight years, our voices haven't been heard. We have urged the regulators, the Department of Health and the U.S. EPA and the Navy to take action to prevent a disaster that would impact heavily our drinking water resource.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The Navy has now stopped operations at the Red Hill fuel storage tanks, which is what you had been calling for.

    The Hawaii congressional delegation had been calling for that. Governor Ige has said he wants to see those tanks emptied of fuel. Is that satisfactory to you?

  • Ernest Lau:

    You know, this gives us hope that, suddenly, the key decision-makers are voicing their concerns about the facility.

    What remains, though, Stephanie, is actual implementation. Are they going to carry through, or is the emergency order issued by the health director for the state of Hawaii going to be enforced strictly and hold the Navy accountable? We have seen in the past letters, strongly worded letters sent from our Department of Health and EPA to the Navy, but we haven't really seen the follow-through and those regulators holding the Navy accountable.

    So now's the time to not do that anymore. We really need to get this thing addressed right away as soon as possible. And for the Board of Water Supply, removal — the immediate removal of the fuel out of Red Hill is the only real way to reduce this risk, massive risk to our drinking water aquifer.

    The Navy is experiencing it firsthand right now. And that's very unfortunate. And I feel so terrible for their customers having to endure this and drink the fuel-contaminated water. I do not want that to be repeated with the general public, the almost over 400,000 people that we serve water in the city of Honolulu itself. We cannot let that happen.

    So, I need the regulators to hold the Navy accountable. I need the Navy to step forward and not fight us anymore. We have been fighting with them for eight years to do the right thing to protect the water resource.

    We have always said to them, you also depend on the resource itself for Joint Base — of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. And they have told us that, that Red Hill shaft supplies 24 percent of their supply for their base.

    So, now, unfortunately, we see firsthand how important clean drinking water is to our community and to the base itself.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Ernest Lau, chief engineer with Honolulu's Water Supply Board, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour."

  • Ernest Lau:


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