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Hawaii Department of Health probe in February didn't detect petroleum in water

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - 5/24/2024

May 24—1/1

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JAMM AQUINO / 2021

In November 2021, jet fuel from the Red Hill fuel storage facility tainted an Oahu waterline that serves 93,000 people, causing symptoms ranging from digestive problems to rashes. Above, the Navy started flushing waterlines at the Pearl City Peninsula military housing neighborhood in December 2021.

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A recent investigation by the state Department of Health into the Navy'sOahu drinking water system found no petroleum or jet fuel compounds in drinking water samples collected in February but did not rule out the possibility of residual fuel in the system after fuel from the Navy's Red Hill

storage facility contaminated it

in November 2021.

The report focused on 15 drinking water samples collected at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and Aliamanu Military Reservation taken from 12 homes and the three water shafts that have served the waterline.

In November 2021, JP-5 jet fuel from the Navy's underground Red Hill fuel storage facility tainted the service's Oahu waterline, which serves 93,000 people, causing symptoms ranging from digestive problems to rashes. The Navy flushed the water system, and by March 2022 the Navy and DOH concluded the system was again safe for use. But since then some residents have continued to report symptoms — including those who moved onto the Navy waterline

after March 2022.

"This report provides reassurance that no petroleum was detected in the 15 drinking water samples DOH collected," said Deputy Director for Environmental Health Kathleen Ho in a statement released Thursday. "It also shows that forensic techniques are effective in analyzing low-level (hydrocarbons) — and we expect the Navy to implement forensic analysis in its future testing to provide the public with accurate data."

In a news release the DOH said that it "employed the services of a petroleum forensic consultant to conduct the analysis. Advanced

forensic techniques were used, which provided a higher level of detection than the unmodified testing methods employed by the Navy during Long-Term Monitoring." That consultant was NewFields Environmental Forensics Practice LLC of Rockland, Mass., which used a Massachusetts-based lab for testing, according to documents released by the DOH.

The Navy has so far not used forensic testing on water samples. In the release, DOH acknowledged that "a drawback of forensic testing is that it does require more time to conduct a sequence of progressive tests," but added that "following regulatory comments, the Navy will incorporate forensic testing in its extended monitoring."

The DOH investigation was prompted by an increase in low-level total

petroleum hydrocarbons detections — or TPH —

in late 2023. EPA investigators tested four homes of residents complaining of symptoms in October and found that three of them had traces of petroleum in the water. In each case, previous Navy testing had shown no traces.

In January and February, complaints of symptoms spiked as well as reports of visible sheens and strange-smelling water.

"I am glad that we have gotten to the point where we can say that at least for these 12 samples from homes, and for the shafts, petroleum wasn't detected," said Marti Townsend, a prominent local environmental activist who chairs the Red Hill Community Representation Initiative. The group was created as part of a federal consent order regarding the closure of Red Hill that included the EPA, DOH and the military, and is made up of a mixture of local residents and activists along with people directly affected by the Red Hill water crisis.

Townsend added, "But

we also know that there is a sheen that is visibly detectable and a smell and reactions to the use of water, which justify further investigation, which honestly, the Navy should have been doing much sooner than now." She noted that the DOH findings acknowledge that there "were things that the tests picked up, but that were not targets of the test and are

inconclusive basically. ... Now we need to figure out exactly what is in the water now, which is what the community has been asking for two years."

In the news release, the DOH said that while the samples found no petroleum, it does not endorse several conclusions by a Navy "Swarm Team" of experts the service brought in to investigate the increase in TPH detections. Notably, the DOH said it disagrees with the Navy's conclusion that certain drinking water zones could not have been contaminated during the November 2021 incident, and that "the Navy should continue to respond to complaints from zones served by its drinking water system."

Recently, residents took the federal government to court in a lawsuit over

the exposure. The trial concluded this month, and the presiding judge is expected to make a ruling on damages later this year. During the trial, the federal government's legal team argued that the contamination wasn't severe enough to cause serious health effects and that some people reporting symptoms were never exposed to fuel at all.

The DOH is also not ruling out the possibility that fuel remains in the Navy's waterline. In a news release it said that "a generalized conclusion that there is no residual fuel for the entire base cannot be made. However, the Navy will have an opportunity to demonstrate a downtrend in the detection during the additional year of sampling. This extended monitoring will comprise of 3,500 additional tests in residences/buildings. This continued large-scale testing would be more representative of the system, and as such, better conclusions can be made."

The CRI has expressed frustration with both the military and regulatory agencies, accusing them of dodging and ignoring questions as well as withholding information, which it says has undermined trust. But Townsend said the DOH's

report was thorough and laid out how and why it

concluded what it did, and that it provides a road map to better testing and more releases to the public.

"I think the department has done a good job of properly bracketing their findings — these 12 homes, these samples from February do not show petroleum," said Townsend. "That doesn't mean that there isn't petroleum in the system, and part of the challenge is that it seems like this contamination comes out in fits and spurts. And so part of it is trying to figure out how to catch it."

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