State and federal officials say that water tested at Hickam Elementary School for potential petroleum contamination is safe after an “unvalidated“ test found high levels early this month.

State and federal officials say that water tested at Hickam Elementary School for potential petroleum contamination is safe after an “unvalidated“ test found high levels early this month. (Hickam Elementary School/Facebook)

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — State and federal officials say that water tested at Hickam Elementary School for potential petroleum contamination is safe after an “unvalidated“ test found high levels early this month.

The state Department of Health “confirmed that water quality at Hickam Elementary School remains safe, following an investigation into the cause of a single, unvalidated test result that exceeded DOH’s incident-specific parameter (ISP ) for total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH ),“ according to a Thursday evening news release.

The ISP—the baseline for safe drinking water — is any TPH reading at or below 266 ppb (parts per billion). But members of the Red Hill Community Representation Initiative, or CRI, have questions about the results, as well as when they were made public.

The CRI is made up of a mixture of local residents and activists along with people directly affected by the Red Hill water crisis, which began in November 2021 when fuel from the Navy’s bulk Red Hill fuel storage facility entered and contaminated the Navy’s Oahu water system, which serves 93,000 people. Hickam Elementary is on the Navy water line. The CRI was created as part of a federal consent order involving the Environmental Protection Agency, the state DOH and the military regarding the closure of Red Hill.

On Tuesday, EPA Region 9 Director Amy Miller wrote in an email to CRI chair Marti Townsend that the Navy notified the EPA in early March that it had detected TPH well above the ISP in water samples taken from an on-base school and a home in the Aliamanu Military Reservation—both of which had their water systems flushed. But Miller also said later tests determined the water was safe.

Until the DOH’s Thursday release, officials did not identify the school in question. According to Miller’s email, the high reading from the school had an “unvalidated“ TPH of 324 ppb, which later testing determined to be an anomaly. But CRI members criticized federal and state officials for waiting until after its March 21 meeting to reveal the the tests existed.

“(The negative results ) wasn’t the point here. I think the point is that a couple of weeks before our CRI meeting these results ... were above what the Department of Health deemed safe,“ said CRI member Healani Sonoda-Pale. “The issue here is the lack of transparency ... this information wasn’t made public in a timely manner.”

In a later email to the members of the CRI, Miller wrote that “before the CRI meeting I asked the Navy officials to discuss the recent data at the CRI meeting and they did not. After the meeting, I informed (Townsend ) that there was recent drinking water monitoring data that I had expected the Navy to discuss ... I asked (Townsend ) to follow up in writing with EPA and we would share the information. We will review the questions and determine if EPA or Navy is best to respond.”

The CRI released the data to the media after receiving it from Miller, but members argue that it should have been public from the beginning.

“If there are cases, especially at an elementary school, where the tests are coming back above what is deemed safe by the by the state Department of Health, then there needs to be more transparency about that—especially at a school,“ said Sonoda-Pale. “And it’s sad to know that this information came out three weeks later ... when results that are this high come out three weeks later to the public. That doesn’t help the situation, that doesn’t build trust.”

She added that even when information is released “it’s given out in a way that it’s not easily accessible, it’s not easily understandable to the layperson. I mean, I’ve had to learn terminologies to understand ... it takes a certain amount of background, to understand what these tests mean, when they say ‘no detect.’” She said that there also needs to be more clarification on what constitutes “validated“ and “unvalidated.”

According to the DOH, the Navy notified the state Department of Education and the DOH on March 8 that a preliminary test result of water from a sink used for hand-washing in classroom P10 at Hickam Elementary detected TPH at 324 ppb.

“The sink was secured on the same day and has not been used,“ the DOH’s news release said. “TPH is one of the many tests that informs DOH’s multiple lines of evidence approach to evaluating the safety of the Navy drinking water system. TPH alone cannot be used to evaluate health risk. More than 40 other petroleum-related compounds were not detected in the testing.”

The DOH said TPH was not found in a second sample collected from the same sink on the same day and that samples from four other locations at Hickam Elementary that were collected on the same day also did not detect TPH.

“The fact that the other samples taken at the same time had different results suggests that the single exceedance could have been contamination,“ the DOH’s news release said. “Further analysis on what may have caused the isolated detection at the one sink is underway, but an initial review showed a strong pattern consistent with some type of lubricating oil (not JP-5 or any other fuel). Out of an abundance of caution, additional samples were also taken from nearby sinks and the sink in question. Results of the additional testing have not detected TPH.”

But the CRI and other community groups have raised concerns about testing methods.

After the crisis began in November 2021, the Navy spent months flushing the system, and in March 2022 the Navy and DOH declared water from the system was safe to drink again, but many residents remained skeptical. Some have continued reporting symptoms, including residents who moved on base after March 2022.

Last year, the EPA began testing homes of people reporting symptoms. In December, the EPA released a report after testing four homes. Three of them had traces of petroleum in the water, and in each case, previous Navy testing had shown no traces. Since then, there has been a surge in complaints. The Navy has since assembled a “swarm team“ of experts to investigate the water.

During a March 7 meeting of the DOH-organized Red Hill Fuel Tank Advisory Committee, a member of the swarm team said detections of TPH didn’t necessarily indicate the presence of petroleum. He asserted that nonpetroleum substances—like chemicals found in plastic — could trigger a positive test for TPH, saying, “In a sense you could call them false positives.”

When asked about the remarks at the CRI’s March 21 meeting, Capt. James Sullivan, commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Hawaii, said the way the lab had been testing the water was “not a drinking water method“ because “as we all know, there should not be fuel in drinking water. So therefore, there was not a method developed for that specifically“ and that the service made due with the “best available“ option.

“There is something wrong with the water,“ said Sonodo-Pale. “So it’s about getting information out to the families ... new families are moving into their homes that’s on the Navy water distribution line, and it’s not being disclosed to these families that the water could be contaminated, it’s not being disclosed to these families what happened in 2021.”

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