These are uncertain times for the Navy’s strategic Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility. Some of the site’s 20 massive fuel tanks may have to be shut down or the facility closed altogether if costly new environmental controls can’t be put into place.

Top government officials in Washington, D.C., are weighing the costs of the new controls, which will likely be required to keep the facility open, versus national security interests, Navy officials said.

Andrew Lovgren, the fuels director at Fleet Logistics Center Pearl Harbor, said Tuesday at a public meeting at a high school near the Red Hill facility that the situation is being assessed at the “highest levels of government.”

Red Hill is of national security importance, the Navy emphasizes, since it supplies fuel to the Pacific fleet.

Security fence at Red Hill Underground Fuel Facility. 1.29.14 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat

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

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

About 80 people attended the public meeting, which included presentations from the Navy, the state Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The gathering was called to address public concerns about the Red Hill facility, where up to 27,000 gallons of fuel are believed to have leaked in January.

That leak, in addition to dozens of others at the WWII-era facility, raised concerns among state and local regulators that the fuel could eventually contaminate a nearby Navy well that supplies drinking water to about 65,000 people at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, as well as wells that supply about one-quarter of the drinking water in urban Honolulu.

If such contamination were to occur, the cost of cleanup could be prohibitive and the process could take decades, according to Navy reports.

More than 100 federal and local firefighters have been trained to respond to a catastrophic event at Red Hill.

The state health department is pushing the Navy to adopt stringent environmental controls if they want to keep the tanks in operation. Measures may include implementing better leak detection and adding double lining to the massive fuel tanks.

“We believe that the highest possible degree of protection should be placed in these tanks if these tanks are going to remain in use by the Navy,” said Gary Gill, deputy director for environmental health at the state health department, during an opening presentation.

“This is a tall order. It has never been done. There is nothing like this in the world and we don’t know how, technologically, these tanks could be double lined and what type of leak detection mimics a nearby gas station.”

For the past three decades, gas stations have had to comply with federal leak detection and prevention requirements, but Red Hill is one of dozens of underground military fuel storage facilities around the country that remain exempt.

Currently, the EPA and state health department are looking to impose similar regulations on Red Hill, but the massive scale and unique engineering of the facility creates special challenges. Technology that could handle such a task is not currently available and could prove costly, officials said.

The EPA and the state health department are currently in negotiations with the Navy about exactly what the technology might look like, officials said, and they are seeking agreement about how to assess the extent of past leaks and what the cleanup requirements should be for the January leak.

“We are working on a comprehensive agreement that will lay out what needs to be done, by when it needs to be done and how it needs to be done,” said Gill.

While past Navy reports raise questions about the safety of the facility and its ability to keep the aging tanks in operation, Navy officials stressed during the meeting that the tanks were in good condition overall.

The Navy has invested about $100 million in general upgrades at the facility over the past eight years, said Capt. Mike Williamson, commanding officer of Naval Facilities Engineering Command.

The Navy also plans to spend $60 million in the 2015 fiscal year, in part, to install doors in a tunnel that leads to the Navy’s drinking water shaft to prevent fuel from getting inside the tunnel in case of a significant release.

UPDATE:

There is also a “high potential” for a fire at the facility and the Navy has been working to upgrade “inadequate” fire-alarm, containment and ventilation systems, according to Department of Defense budget documents for fiscal year 2015.

“Fires involving fuel are extremely difficult to extinguish. This is even more so in the underground tunnels of the Red Hill tank farm because of the confined spaces,” according to the documents. “Also the ventilation within the tunnel as well as the remote location and inadequate fire protection infrastructure external to the tunnel make this a high risk operation.”

The fuel tanks are routinely taken out of service for inspection and maintenance. And the Navy is in the midst of major work on the tanks to add 20 years to their longevity. The Navy has completed these repairs on 5 of the 18 active tanks. Two of the tanks have been retired.

In response to a question from the audience about whether there is an emergency plan in place for Red Hill, Scott Hedrick, an expert in operating fuel for the Navy, said that there were extensive contingency plans in case of a catastrophe. “These plans are in place. I keep a copy not only in my office, but I keep a copy in my car so that we are ready to set up management posts in the now and react to an emergency, if it occurs,” he said.

Hedrick said that more than 100 federal and local firefighters have been trained to respond to a catastrophic event at Red Hill, which he called unlikely.

However some remained concerned about the safety of the facility.

“I think it’s scary,” said Jonathan Starr, a member of the state water commission, who attended the meeting. He believes the facility is an “existential threat” to the future of Honolulu.

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