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Navy Lt. Cmdr. Travis Myers stands beside a carbon-filter system designed to remove contaminants from water drawn from the Red Hill well on the outskirts of Honolulu, Hawaii, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Travis Myers stands beside a carbon-filter system designed to remove contaminants from water drawn from the Red Hill well on the outskirts of Honolulu, Hawaii, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. (Wyatt Olson/Stars and Stripes)

FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii – The Navy expected over the weekend to begin filtering 5 million gallons of water a day drawn from the petroleum-contaminated Red Hill well on the outskirts of Honolulu.

The well, one of three the Navy uses in its water distribution system, was contaminated by jet fuel from its Red Hill Fuel Storage Facility, a massive underground tank system built during World War II.

The process is a stopgap measure to prevent the contamination from moving elsewhere in the aquifer.

Thousands of residents of military housing communities on and around Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam were forced to temporarily relocate to hotels in early December after their tap water became tainted with petroleum.

The Hawaii Department of Health earlier this month ordered the tanks to be emptied.

The tanks sit roughly 100 feet above Oahu’s primary aquifer, which provides about 70% of the island’s fresh water.

The Navy quickly isolated the Red Hill well and has for weeks worked to flush the distribution system out using untainted water from the other two wells. Pipes, water heaters and other appliances that use water in homes and facilities are being systematically flushed.

Navy, state and federal officials led reporters on a tour of the filtering operation on Friday. Journalists were guided through a roughly 100-yard tunnel carved into a mountainside that led to the well-shaft room, where the pumps have sat dormant since early December.

During the filtering process, water from the well will be drawn and sent out through a newly laid 2-foot-diameter pipe leading outside. There, the tainted water will pass through a series of massive carbon filters to absorb the petroleum.

The water will then be piped into the nearby Halawa Stream.

The Hawaii Department of Health on Thursday authorized the discharge of the treated water into the stream, provided it remains within the monitoring requirements of the recovery plan agreed to by the Navy, Health Department and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Travis Myers told reporters that the stream can easily handle the estimated 5 million gallons of water expected to pass through the eight filter towers each day.

Myers noted that during a weeklong rainy spell in Honolulu over the New Year holiday, roughly 600 million gallons of rainwater passed through the stream per day.

Officials did not know how long the filtering process will need to be conducted.

“This process is not necessarily based on a timeline; it’s based on the data,” Myers said. “So it’s a very methodical approach with our interagency partners and stakeholders.”

The filtering process, however, is just an important first step, Travis Hylton, environmental director for Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Pacific, told reporters.

“We started the recovery of the well with removal of contaminants directly from the well, from the water surface, through skimming and absorbing,” he said. “With this process, it will give us some time to make sure that we're able to counter the potential for contaminants migrating away from the site. So this isn't the end of the remediation processes.

“As we collect more data, we will develop remediation strategies not just for the groundwater, but for the unsaturated zone, where the fuels may be hung up in the rock formation,” Hylton said.

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Wyatt Olson is based in the Honolulu bureau, where he has reported on military and security issues in the Indo-Pacific since 2014. He was Stars and Stripes’ roving Pacific reporter from 2011-2013 while based in Tokyo. He was a freelance writer and journalism teacher in China from 2006-2009.
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