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Look Back: WHY DOH? Increased EALs...

Updated: Apr 9

[link to Civil Beat story and original documents below]


In Hawai’i, the safety standards for diesel contaminants in drinking water have been a subject of debate. Five years ago, the state's safety threshold for diesel-range hydrocarbons was 160 parts per billion. However, in 2017, the Hawaii health department raised this limit to 400 parts per billion, despite objections from the Honolulu Board of Water Supply. This change meant that water samples from the Red Hill well, which would have been considered unsafe under the old standards, were deemed safe under the new limits.

Total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH) are chemicals derived from crude oil. These aren't regulated federally, so states set their own standards. The Honolulu Board of Water Supply, advocating caution, has requested the state Department of Health to revert to the previous, stricter threshold, arguing that it better protects health, the environment, and drinking water resources.

The Department of Health (DOH), meanwhile, has stated that the revised environmental action levels (EALs) are under constant review and are based on comprehensive scientific assessments. The initial thresholds were based on a 1980 EPA publication, which was later found to be based on a mistranslated Soviet study from the 1940s. The DOH revised the thresholds after consulting with various experts and looking at studies from California.

The Navy's water system contamination, which caused illnesses and displacement among military families, has highlighted the urgency of this issue. The Board of Water Supply's Chief Engineer, Ernie Lau, criticized the DOH's decision-making process and its assumptions about TPH exposure and degradation rates, especially given Hawaii's unique geological conditions. Lau also disagreed with the DOH's increase of the taste and odor threshold for TPH-d from 100 to 500 parts per billion, citing uncertainties in the studies used for this decision.

Lau's concerns are underscored by the fact that the Navy's water system contamination was initially identified not through water testing, but by reports from military families of fuel smells and health issues. This situation, according to Lau, demonstrates the inadequacy of the current EALs and the need for more conservative standards.

Civil Beat story:

February 4, 2022

Hawaii Health Officials Review Drinking Water Standards After Red Hill Fuel Crisis


August 20, 2018

BWS request for explanation

Honolulu Board of Water Supply (BWS) Request to Hawaii Department of Health (DOH) for an Explanation of the Basis for the Increase in the Environmental Action Levels (EALs) for Total Petroleum Hydrocarbon Middle Distillate Fraction (TPH-d).

October 22, 2018

DOH response

January 31, 2022

BWS request

Water Test Results:

JBPHH Safe Waters

Schedules: Remediation and Monitoring

Water Test Results

JBPHH Water System Information: Accessing Sample Results (from monitoring wells)

UH Tap Water Screening



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