Navy: JP-5 Spill Contaminated Joint Base Pearl Harbor's Water Supply

Sailors and Marines hand out fresh water at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. 93,000 customers are unable to use tapwater supply due to contamination from the Red Hill tank farm (USN)

Published Dec 12, 2021 11:40 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy believes that a spill of JP-5 jet fuel that occurred at the Red Hill tank farm last month is the likely source of the petroleum in the potable water supply for its facilities in and around Honolulu, Hawaii. 

Military families living near Red Hill first reported a taste or smell of petroleum in their drinking water on November 28, and the Navy immediately shut down the water supply well located nearest the tank farm. Testing confirmed the presence of hydrocarbons in the well at a concentration about 350 times the state's "environmental action level," and the contamination is also present in other parts of the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system.

The system is being flushed out to remove hydrocarbon contamination, and in the interim, at least 700 families in the most-affected dwellings have been provided with hotel housing. The state's Department of Health has advised all 93,000 customers on the system to avoid using the water for drinking, cooking or bathing. U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii has stepped in to help affected servicemembers, distributing clean drinking water and setting up temporary field stations for meal service.

"We know with a high degree of confidence based on water testing results . . . that the contaminant is jet fuel, JP-5 jet fuel specifically, and that testing also indicates that the fuel is from a relatively new release," said Rear Adm. Blake Converse, Deputy Commander of the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet, in testimony before Hawaii's legislature on Friday. "From the test results and engineering analysis to date, it appears that some quantity of JP-5 jet fuel entered the Red Hill well in a single event, likely from the 20 November spill, and then was subsequently pumped from that well and distributed across those portions of the Navy water system fed by the Red Hill well."

Converse emphasized that the contamination was not the result of a direct leak from any of Red Hill's 20 buried fuel tanks, which each hold up to 12.5 million gallons of fuel. 

The November 20 spill event involved the release of at least 14,000 gallons of fuel/water mixture from a fire suppression drain line into one of the Red Hill complex's tunnels. The spill was cleaned up, but it appears that a portion of the petroleum penetrated into the Red Hill potable water well shaft. 

The Navy is now in the process of remediating the well shaft, and it has sent a team of salvage divers down to visually investigate the extent of the contamination. 

According to Navy Times, the Navy's water sampling program has also detected fuel contamination in piping near another well shaft just to the north. The service denies that the second well shaft - the Aiea-Halawa well - is contaminated.

However, that is not enough reassurance for Honolulu's Board of Water Supply, which wants to see the Navy's data. The city has already closed its own wells in Aiea and Halawa as a precautionary measure.

“I am deeply troubled and we have requested all pumpage and test data from the Dept. of Health on the Red Hill Shaft and the Aiea-Halawa Shaft. We need to have this data in order to make solid and informed decisions regarding our system so we can continue to service our customers,” said Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernest Lau.

The contamination at Red Hill confirms longstanding local concerns about the Navy's ability to prevent leaks at the 80-year-old facility, and state and local officials have responded forcefully. On Tuesday, Gov. David Ige joined the State Department of Health in announcing an emergency order to force the Navy to drain Red Hill entirely for inspection. Separately, Lt. Gov. Josh Green called for the Navy to relocate Red Hill's function to a new aboveground tank farm. 

Last week, activists and native Hawaiians held protests outside of the state capital (and at the gate to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam) to call for Red Hill's closure.

“The Navy has lied and denied about this issue for years,” said Andre Perez of the Hawaii Unity and Liberation Institute, speaking to Hawaii News Now. "Let’s not beat around the bush. This is a catastrophe. Our water wells may be damaged for good with jet fuel."