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One Year After Navy Poisons Water, It Does It Again

Above photo: Oahu Water Protectors Facebook Page.

One Year After 19,000 gallons of Navy Jet Fuel Spewed into Honolulu’s Aquifer, 1,300 gallons of the Navy’s Dangerous PFAS Fire Fighting Foam Leaked into the Ground at Red Hill.

On the First Anniversary of the Massive Jet Fuel Leak from Red Hill, 103 million gallons of Jet fuel Remain in the Underground Tanks Only 100 Feet Above Honolulu’s Aquifer, Sickened Military and Civilian Families Poisoned by the Navy’s Jet Fuel Still have Difficulties Obtaining Medical Help.

One can hardly finish an article about Hawaii’s Red Hill jet fuel disaster before another dangerous incident happens.  While I was completing an article concerning the first anniversary of the November 2021 massive jet fuel leak of over 19,000 gallons of jet fuel into the drinking water well that served 93,000 military and civilian families, on November 29, 2022, at least 1,300 gallons of the extremely toxic fire suppressant concentrate known as Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) leaked out of an “air release valve” installed by the contractor Kinetix onto the tunnel floor of the Red Hill Underground Jet Fuel Storage Tanks complex entrance and flowed 40 feet out of the tunnel into the soil.

Kinetix workers reportedly were performing maintenance on the system when the leak occurred. While the system had an alarm, Navy officials were unable to determine if the alarm sounded as the contents of the above ground AFFF tank emptied.

First No Video, Then Video, But the Public Can’t View It

In yet another public relations fiasco, while initially stating that there were no working video cameras in the area, the Navy now has said there is footage but will not release the footage to the public citing concerns that the public’s viewing of the incident might “jeopardize the investigation.”

The Navy will allow representatives of the Hawaii state Department of Health (DOH) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to view the video, but only in a military facility.  DOH and EPA officials will not be allowed to make copies of the video. They have not disclosed if they will be required by the Navy to sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to see the video.

However, DOH is pushing back on the Navy. On December 7, 2022, Katie Arita-Chang, a spokeswoman for the Health Department said in an email to a media outlet,

“DOH will be consulting with the Hawaii Attorney General, as in this case, we believe that receiving a copy of the video is necessary to carry out our regulatory work. It is also imperative that the Joint Task Force makes the video available to the public as soon as possible in the interest of honesty and transparency.”

The public is still waiting after one year for the Navy to officially release the video of the 2021 leak that the Navy initially said did not exist and has seen only because a whistleblower released the footage, not the Navy.

3,000 Cubic Feet of Contaminated Soil

Navy contract workers have removed 3,000 cubic feet of contaminated soil from the Red Hill site and have put the soil into over 100+ 50 gallon drums, similar to the drums that were used to contain another dangerous toxic chemical Agent Orange.

AFFF is a firefighting foam that is used to put out fuel fires and contains PFAS, or per-and polyfluoroalkyl ingredients which are notorious for being “forever chemicals” which will not break down in the environment and are harmful to humans and animals.  It is the same substance that had been in the pipe from which 19,000 gallons of jet fuel spewed in the November 2021 leak.

Deputy Director of the State of Hawaii’s Environment Health department called the leak “egregious.”  

At an emotional press conference Ernie Lau, manager and chief engineer of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, said he felt he “heard the aquifer crying” and demanded that the Navy empty the fuel tanks faster than July 2024 as the only reason the dangerous foam was there was because petroleum was still in the tanks.

Sierra Club’s Executive Director Wayne Tanaka said, “It’s just outrageous that they (the Navy) would be so reckless with our lives and our future.  They know that rain, water infiltrates and passes through the Red Hill facility into the ground and eventually into the groundwater.  And still they choose to use firefighting foam that has these “forever chemicals.”

The number of U.S. communities confirmed to be contaminated with the highly toxic fluorinated compounds known as PFAS continues to grow at an alarming rate. As of June 2022, 2,858 locations in 50 states and two territories are known to be contaminated.

U.S. military poisoning of communities bordering military installations extends to U.S. bases around the world.  In an excellent December 1, 2022 article “The U.S. Military is Poisoning Okinawa,” PFAS investigator Pat Elder provides details of blood testing confirming high levels of carcinogen PFAS in the blood of hundreds living close to US bases on the island of Okinawa. In July 2022, blood samples were taken from 387 residents of Okinawa by physicians with the group Liaison to Protect the Lives of Citizens Against PFAS Contamination show dangerous levels of PFAS exposure.

In July 2022, the National Academies of the Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), the 159-year-old organization that provides scientific advice to the United States government, published “Guidance on PFAS Exposure, Testing, and Clinical Follow-Up.”

National Academies advises physicians to offer PFAS blood testing to patients likely to have a history of elevated exposure, like firefighters or patients who live or have lived in communities where PFAS contamination has been documented.

Medical Community in Hawaii Has Had Little Experience in Treating Toxic Poisoning until 2022, Then No Help From the Military That Caused the Poisoning

As we know from the experience of the past year with jet fuel contamination, physicians in Hawaii had little experience with treating symptoms of jet fuel poisoning and received little help from the military medical field.  Unless civil-military relationships change for the better, the Honolulu medical community should not expect any greater assistance concerning PFAS contamination.   At the November 9, 2022 Fuel Tank Advisory Council meeting, Committee member Dr. Melanie Lau commented that the civilian medical community was given very little guidance in recognizing symptoms of jet fuel poisoning. “I’ve had some patients come in and tell me their symptoms and didn’t realize the water was contaminated at the time. It didn’t click until after we knew about the contamination.”

More and more national and international attention is focusing on the dangers of PFAS including documentaries and movies. “Dark Waters,” a movie released in 2020 tells the true story of the lawyer who took on chemical giant DuPont after discovering that the company was polluting drinking water with the harmful chemical PFOA.

Citizen Demands on Latest Toxic Spills

The Sierra Club Hawaii and Oahu Water Protectors have responded to the latest toxic leak with the following demands:

  1. Full removal/remediation of all contaminated soil, water, and infrastructure at and around the Red Hill facility
  2. Establish an on-island, independent, non-DOD water and soil testing facility;
  3. Increase the number of monitoring wells surrounding the facility and require weekly samples;
  4. Build water filtration systems to service the people who may be without safe water if the current or future spills contaminate the water supply;
  5. Require full disclosure of all AFFF systems at military facilities in Hawai‘i and the full history of all AFFF releases; and
  6. Replace the Navy and its contractors from their role in defueling and decommissioning Red Hill with a multi-department, civilian-led task force with experts and community representatives.

First Anniversary of Leak of 19,000 Gallons of Jet Fuel into Honolulu Aquifer

In early November 2022, the Navy moved 1 million gallons of fuel that were in the 3.5 miles of pipes that carry fuel from the Red Hill underground facility down to above ground storage tanks and the ship refueling pier.

103 million gallons of jet fuel still remain in 14 of the 20, giant 80-year-old underground tanks situated inside the volcanic mountainside called Red Hill and only 100 feet above Honolulu’s drinking water aquifer.  The hill was carved out for the tanks to be constructed inside during World War II.  The Navy Task Force is estimating that it will take another 19 months, until July 2024, to empty the tanks due to major repairs that need to be made to the facility, a timeline that is under substantial criticism from State and County officials and the community.

Until the November 2021 spill, the Navy had maintained that the Red Hill facility was in excellent condition with no danger of fuel spills, even though there had been a 19,000 gallon leak in May 2021 as well as a 27,000 gallon leak in 2014.

Sickened Military and Civilian Families Poisoned by the Navy’s Jet Fuel Still have Difficulties Obtaining Medical Help

In data released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on November 9, 2022 during the semi-annual meeting of the Red Hill Fuel Tank Advisory Committee (FTAC), a September 2022 follow-up survey of 986 persons by the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (CDC/ATSDR) indicated that serious health impacts from the fuel poisoning continues in individuals.

This survey was a follow up to an initial health impact survey conducted in January and February 2022. In May 2022, results from the initial survey were published in an article in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) and summarized in a fact sheet.

788 persons, 80% of those who responded to the September survey, reported symptoms in the last 30 days such as headaches, skin irritation, fatigue and difficulty sleeping. Of those who were pregnant during the crisis, 72% experienced complications, according to the survey.

61% of those responding were returning survey participants and 90% were affiliated with the Department of Defense.

The survey reported that:

  • 41% reported an existing condition that had worsened;
  • 31% reported a new diagnosis;
  • and 25% reported a new diagnosis with no pre-existing condition.

Daniel Nguyen, epidemic intelligence service officer at the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry stated in the meeting that almost a third of respondents reported tasting or smelling petroleum in their tap water in the past 30 days.

He said that “previous studies show exposure to jet fuel may impact the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract and nervous system.  Commonly reported accidental kerosene exposure include difficulty breathing, abdominal pain, vomiting, fatigue and convulsion.”

Despite EPA evidence to the contrary, medical leaders say there’s no evidence so far of long term-illnesses from drinking the water that was contaminated with jet fuel and have said a simple test can’t diagnose a direct link.

In direct opposition to the findings of the CDC, during the same FTAC meeting, Dr. Jennifer Espiritu, head of the newly formed Department of Defense Regional Health Center and chief of public health at Tripler Army Medical Center, stated that “there is no conclusive evidence that jet fuel has caused health problems,”

Incredibly, at a press conference on November 21, Dr. Espiritu continued her contradiction of EPA evidence that jet fuel poisons people.  Espiritu said, “One of our biggest battles right now is the battle against misinformation. I’ve been posed with the question why can’t I perform an examination or a test on someone that tells me why they are having their symptoms and whether it’s related to the jet fuel exposure that happened a year ago.  There is not a magic test that does that and I don’t know why there is a perception that there is.”

Early in the crisis, military medical teams saw 6,000 people for illnesses. Now military officials say an unspecified and “unprecedented number” of patients are complaining of skin, gastrointestinal, respiratory, and neurological issues.

One Year After Navy’s Massive Toxic Jet Fuel Leak, DOD Finally Sets up Special Medical Clinic

On November 21, 2022, one year after the massive jet fuel spill, the Department of Defense announced that a special clinic will be set up to document long term symptoms and determine if they are linked to the toxic water. Tripler military hospital officials are still maintaining that existing medical research has only shown short-term effects when exposed to contamination.

Large numbers of military and civilian families have provided media with stories and photos documenting their illnesses.  Hawaii News Now (HNN) has conducted many interviews with families done over the past year.  At the one year anniversary of the Red Hill jet fuel poisoning, HNN produced a series of newscasts “Red Hill – One Year Later” which featured  families discussing the symptoms and attempts of treatment for the fuel poisoning.

Alarm Bells Should Have Been Ringing–Many Felt Ill Before the November 2021 19,000 Jet Fuel Spill Into the Drinking Water Aquifer

Many military and civilian families living on military bases around Pearl Harbor, Hawai’i have been outspoken that they felt ill before the November 2021 massive Red Hill jet fuel leak…and they were right!

Recently released data shows that their water was contaminated by jet fuel in the summer of 2021 and they were feeling effects of poisoning long before November 2021.

Interviews with ten families published in an extensive December 21, 2021 Washington Post article “Military families say they were ill months before jet-fuel leak brought scrutiny to Pearl Harbor’s tap water,” record that family members shared physicians’ notes, emails and visual records documenting symptoms that, in some cases, dated back to late spring, 2021.

Many other articles in local and national media in the past year have also documented members of many military and civilian families seeking medical treatment for a variety of symptoms of jet fuel exposure, without knowing what the origin of the symptoms was.

Alarm bells that should have been ringing in the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH) from spiking levels of jet fuel in drinking water were silenced by a catastrophic 2017 DOH decision to increase by two and a half times the environmentally allowable level (EAL) of contamination in Honolulu’s drinking water.

Analysis of Hawaii’s Red Hill 80-year-old massive jet fuel underground storage tanks storage cumulative data table issues dated August 31, 2022, verifies the comments of many impacted military and civilian families that they had been feeling ill prior to the November 2021 “spew” for 35 hours of 19,000 gallons of jet fuel into the Red Hill drinking well portion of the Honolulu aquifer.

The question is who knew about the elevated levels of total petroleum hydrocarbons-diesel (TPH-d) which indicate fuel in the aquifer beginning in at least June 2021, six months before the November “spew” of jet fuel, and why weren’t the families who were living on affected military and civilian residential areas and who were drinking the contaminated water informed?

As a reminder to all of us who know virtually nothing about jet fuel poisoning, when the TPH-d (total petroleum hydrocarbons diesel) level is 100 parts per billion (ppb) you can smell and taste petroleum when it is in water.  That is why the Board of Water supply protested in 2017 when the Hawaii Department of Health increased the “safe” level of fuel in the drinking water from 160 parts per billion (ppb) to 400parts per billion (ppb).

The Hawaii State Department of Health had drawn the line at 100 parts per billion for taste and smell, and 160 for drinking, until 2017 when DOH increased the acceptable level of taste and smell to 500 ppb and acceptable level for drinking to 400 ppb.

As the public was informed in the December 21, 2021 emergency order hearing, the Hawaii Department of Health revealed that from June to September, fuel had been detected in the Red Hill water shaft on multiple occasions, with two tests by the Navy in August, 2021 exceeding environmental action levels, but the Navy’s results were not relayed to the state for months.

Hawaii Citizens, State and Local Officials Push Navy to Defuel Jet Fuel Tanks Faster Than Timeline

The Navy’s relationship with the community continues to torpedo downward.  The lack of transparency and misinformation has infuriated state and local officials and caused community groups to hold public gatherings to warn the military that it is on thin ice.  The delay until June 2024, 18 months, in completing the defueling of the 104 million gallons remaining in underground tanks only 100 feet above the aquifer is unacceptable to the community.  Officials of Honolulu’s Board of Water Supply routinely comment publicly that every day the jet fuel remains in the tanks is a danger to our water supply and urge the Navy to speed up its timetable for draining the massive tanks and officially shutting down the complex.

Local organizations have been busy educating the community about the continuing dangers of the Red Hill underground jet fuel tank complex. Members of the Sierra Club-Hawaii, Oahu Water Protectors, Earthjustice, 60 organizations in the Shut Down Red Hill Coalition, Hawaii Peace and Justice, Ka’ohewai,  Shut Down Red Hill Mutual Aid Collective,  Environmental Caucus and Wai Ola Alliance have held die-ins at the State Capitol, participated in weekly sign-waving, given testimonies to state water committees and neighborhood councils,  delivered water to affected military and civilian communities, organized national and international webinars,  held a 10-day “Anahula” vigil at the gates of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet headquarters, commemorated the anniversary of the massive November 2021 leak with a LIE-versary , marched for clean water on Oahu and in Washington, DC , hosted picnics and offered community support to military and civilian families needing medical attention.

As a result of their activism, perhaps not surprisingly, no members of those organizations were asked to be on the Red Hill Task Force’s newly formed 14 member citizens “Information Forum,” whose meetings, interestingly, are closed to the media and the public.

NDAA to Allocate $1 Billion for Red Hill Defueling and Closure and $800 Million for Military Infrastructure Upgrades

On December 8, 2022, the US House of Representatives passed  the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which goes to the US Senate next week.  The NDAA provision on Red Hill includes:

  • Requiring the Navy to issue a publicly available report every quarter on the status of the effort to close the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.
  • Directing the DoD to determine the need, number and optimal locations of additional sentinel or monitoring wells to detect and track the movement of fuel that has leaked into the ground, in coordination with the United States Geological Survey.
  • Requiring the DoD to conduct a hydrology study around Red Hill and assess how best to address the water needs on O‘ahu and mitigate water shortages, to include water treatment plants or the placement of a new drinking water shaft.
  • Directing the DoD to track the long-term health implications of fuel leaks from Red Hill for members of the armed forces and their dependents in conjunction with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Hawai‘i Department of Health. But no mention of harm caused to civilian families affected by the jet fuel contaminated water.

o    Allocating Tripler Army Medical Center Water System Upgrades: $38 million

o    Allocating Fort Shafter Water System Upgrades: $33 million

o    Allocating Pearl Harbor Water Line Upgrades: $10 million

Echoing the community’s frustration with the U.S. military’s handling of the Red Hill disasters, U.S. Congressman from Hawaii Ed Case’s reminded the military that is must strengthen its military’s community engagement efforts to try to rebuild trust with the people of Hawai‘i following the Red Hill fuel leaks.

Case stated: “The military must do everything it can to earn back trust from our communities; This can only be done by coordinated performance and partnership among all services over time.”

Ann Wright served 29 years in the U.S. Army/Army Reserves and retired as a Colonel.  She was also a U.S. diplomat and served in U.S. Embassies in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia.  She resigned from the U.S. government in March 2003 in opposition to the U.S. war on Iraq.  She is the co-author of “Dissent: Voices of Conscience.”  She is a member of Veterans For Peace, Oahu Water Protectors and Hawaii Peace and Justice.  She lives in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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