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A tunnel inside of the Red Hill underground fuel storage facility in Hawaii, Jan. 26, 2018.
A tunnel inside of the Red Hill underground fuel storage facility in Hawaii, Jan. 26, 2018. (Shannon Haney/U.S. Navy)

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — A top official with the Department of the Navy has apologized to Hawaii residents for comments made during a contested case hearing last week on the Navy's Red Hill fuel facility.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy James Balocki said during the hearing that the petroleum contamination within the Navy's drinking water system that serves about 93,000 people in and around Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam didn't constitute a crisis. He also testified during the hearing that he was not aware of anyone who had gotten sick from the water contamination.

Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele in a letter sent last week to Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro as "insulting and offensive."

In response, Under Secretary of the Navy Meredith Berger apologized in a letter to Kahele, sent Friday.

"On behalf of the entire Department of the Navy, we are sincerely sorry," she wrote. "We will work tirelessly until the drinking water contamination situation at Red Hill is resolved. Our team remains in critical response mode to ensure we are effective, swift, and comprehensive in all of our lines of effort, from support to families and residents to remediation."

Berger said she had personally spoken to Balocki and that "he is remorseful for his choice of words during the hearing."

"Jim fully appreciates the pain his words have caused, and he regrets that he did not reflect empathy or understanding for the substantial impact of this situation on both people and the environment," she wrote.

Balocki, a civil service employee, serves as principal adviser to the Secretary of the Navy and assistant Secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment. He was sent to Hawaii to assist with the response to the contamination in the Red Hill shaft and was on Oahu for two weeks, beginning Dec. 1.

Several thousand military families have been relocated to hotels, primarily in Waikiki, as the Navy continues the work of flushing its distribution lines to remove petroleum contamination. The underground Red Hill facility is believed to be the source of the contamination.

Users of the Navy's water system began reporting a fuel smell from their tap water toward the end of November, along with symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, skin rashes and headaches that are associated with exposure to petroleum contamination in water.

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