The Navy has awarded a contract to drill monitoring wells near its Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility to gauge whether leaked fuel may be migrating toward the county’s drinking water supply. 

But the work on the two wells likely won’t begin until the end of the summer, at the earliest, according to Navy spokesman Tom Clements, a timeline that is frustrating the head of Honolulu’s Board of Water Supply. 

In January, some 27,000 gallons of jet fuel may have leaked from the facility. That possibility, and dozens of past leaks dating back to the 1940s that were only recently made public, have raised concerns that fuel threatens aquifers that supply one-quarter of urban Honolulu’s drinking water.

Red Hill (NO TYPE)

Gates leading up to the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

“I am concerned about the slow pace here of actions being taken,” said Ernest Lau, chief engineer at the Board of Water Supply. “I do understand that this will probably need to be worked on over many years, but I would hope that the pace would pick up here on addressing this issue.”

Lau noted that it has been five months since the discovery that 27,000 gallons of jet fuel were unaccounted for.

Lau and top state health officials say that a more extensive well monitoring program may ultimately be needed. Past Navy reports show that the groundwater beneath the Red Hill facility is polluted with hydrocarbons at levels that far exceed safety standards and officials worry that the plume could be migrating toward nearby drinking water aquifers.

The health department is expected to soon release an “enforcement remedy” for the Navy to address contamination concerns, said Steven Chang, head of the Hawaii Department of Health’s solid and hazardous waste branch. He didn’t want to discuss details of the document until it’s finalized. 

It remains to be seen whether the agreement will be legally binding — the Red Hill facility has been exempt from federal leak detection and prevention requirements that most underground fuel facilities, primarily gas stations, have been subject to since the 1980s.

“If anything, we need support from the public that this remedy will be wholeheartedly accepted by the Navy to do the right thing,” said Chang. “We would like to see significant improvements in how the facility is operated and how it can be designed to (incorporate) current technology and underground storage management.”

A Slow Process

The Red Hill facility, which sits less than three miles mauka of Pearl Harbor in Halawa Heights, contains 20 massive underground fuel tanks, each capable of holding 12.5 million gallons of fuel. The facility has powered the military’s Pacific operations since it was built during World War II.

Fuel leaks are believed to pose the greatest risk to a Navy well that supplies drinking water to about 65,000 people at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

But following reports of the possible January spill, Lau began raising concerns about the threat to the county’s drinking water supply, noting a 2010 Navy report that suggested that contamination may be moving in the direction of county drinking water wells. 

Clements says the Navy awarded a $1.5 million contract on May 22 to Battelle Memorial Institute, based in Columbus, Ohio, to drill up to four test wells. Currently, the Navy is only pursuing two of the wells, which would be drilled mauka of the Red Hill facility. Clements did not respond to a question about why only two of the four wells are being pursued at this time. 

He said that the Navy was moving quickly. 

“The process to fund and award a contract was done as expeditiously as possible within legal considerations and contracting requirements,” Clements said by email. 

He added that the new monitoring wells will be “sited and drilled as quickly as possible following all appropriate regulatory procedures.”

Clements attributed the delay in drilling the wells to regulatory hurdles posed by the state health department, noting that they will require “environmental planning documentation, site approval, natural and cultural resource consultation, drill and dig permits.”

However, Chang disputes the Navy’s claim that it will take months to get approvals from his department. 

“We will test that,” he said. “We will see how long it really takes them to do that. I think it is not clear that they have to wait months and months to get approval. Once we tell them to go, how long will it take their contractor to mobilize?”

It’s his perception, he said, that the “slowness is on their part.”

A Ring of Wells

Neither Chang nor Lau wanted to comment on whether two wells would ultimately be sufficient to determine the potential movement of groundwater contamination toward drinking water wells. 

But Chang said a more methodical approach was needed that would likely involve progressively drilling wells outward from the circumference of the Red Hill facility until evidence of fuel was no longer detected in the groundwater. 

A similar process has been implemented at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where an undetected, decades-long hole in a pipeline leaked an estimated 6 million gallons of fuel into the ground. More than 100 monitoring wells now dot the landscape, at a cost of about a quarter-million dollars each, according to PBS NewsHour.

It’s not clear how much fuel has leaked at Red Hill over the decades. A recent Navy estimate puts the amount at 1.2 million gallons, but Chang notes that the historic record of leaks is extremely spotty.

Drilling monitoring wells come with its own risks.

“We don’t want to make Swiss cheese out of our drinking water,” said Chang. 

“We hope we don’t have to drill 1,000 wells, because that would be scary. When we direct people to drill wells into the aquifer, they take confirmation samples and immediately seal the wells because that’s another way that pollutants can get into the groundwater. So we want to be real cautious on that.”

No Leak?

Meanwhile, the Navy is still trying to figure out whether Red Hill’s Tank 5 leaked in January and why, a process that could take a year. 

While the Navy confirmed to the state health department that there was a leak in January and turned over evidence to this effect, as required by law, military officials say they are no longer sure that this is the case. 

The Navy has drained the fuel from the tank, which is about the size of Aloha Tower, and aired out the fumes — a process that took weeks. In early April, Navy officials began inspecting the bottom of the tank and are now beginning to visually examine its 225-walls.

Red Hill leak

(Photo: Courtesy U.S. Navy; Fuel oozes out of concrete near Tank 5)

At a recent press conference, Navy Capt. Mike Williamson, commanding officer of Naval Facilities Engineering Command, said that the January drop in the fuel level in Tank 5 may have resulted not from a leak, but from material such as water moving out of the area between the steel tank and its outer concrete lining. 

However, Chang is skeptical of the claim that there may not have been a leak.

“They are being extremely optimistic,” he said. “And you know, ultimately, if that is true, that there is no release, they would clearly have to demonstrate why and how because . . . initially they made the determination that there was a release and confirmed it to us.”

In January, the Navy observed fuel leaking from concrete outside Tank 5, which matched the jet fuel inside the tank, noted Chang. The Navy’s leak detection system, which monitors fluctuations in fuel levels at the tanks, registered a drop of 27,000 gallons. And soil vapor levels below the tank jumped to 225,000 parts per billion in January — triple the highest level ever recorded under the tank since sampling began in 2008.

“So that is interesting, right?” said Chang. 

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