Little is known about the condition of military fuel tanks in Hawaii outside of the Navy’s Red Hill facility because most of them haven’t been regulated by the state health department and have never been inspected, according to Steven Chang, head of the department’s solid and hazardous waste branch.

Chang made that revelation after a meeting last week of the Red Hill Task Force, which has focused on the 18 massive fuel tanks at the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility mauka of Pearl Harbor. One of them leaked 27,000 gallons of fuel in January, raising concerns about drinking water contamination.

Ten other tanks currently in operation on Oahu and Kauai, as well as 16 others that have been taken out of service, are much smaller, but they haven’t received the scrutiny that the Red Hill tanks have recently.

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

Security fence at Red Hill Underground Fuel Facility.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could close a loophole as early as the beginning of next year that until recently has allowed all the underground fuel tanks operated by the military in Hawaii to escape leak detection and prevention regulations that have governed gas stations since the 1980s.

Those tanks include the 18 currently in operation at the Navy’s Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility mauka of Pearl Harbor. The leak in January sparked concerns from local government officials that it, as well as dozens of past leaks over the decades, could contaminate a critical source of drinking water for Oahu.

Other underground tanks maintained primarily by the Navy have received little attention. At the task force meeting, even Navy officials seemed unaware of the existence of the tanks which, like those at Red Hill, date back to World War II. 

Navy officials answered “no” when Gary Gill, deputy director for environmental health at the Hawaii Department of Health, asked them whether there were any other underground “field constructed tanks” in Hawaii.

They seemed surprised when state health officials said they had a list of other tanks located on Oahu and Kauai.

Taking Stock of ‘What Else is Out There’

In the 1980s, media reports about the health and environmental dangers posed by leaking underground fuel storage tanks spurred federal laws that increased regulatory oversight of the tanks.

However, the regulations pertained primarily to gas stations. Fuel tanks operated by the military that fall into the category of “field-constructed tanks” were exempt.

But now the EPA is looking to close that exemption and more than 100 field-constructed tanks, including those in Hawaii, could face more stringent regulations when it comes to leak detection and prevention. Federal officials could make a decision on new rules early next year, according to Steven Linder, a program manager for the EPA’s underground storage tank program.

The state health department has increased oversight of the Red Hill tanks in recent years and tests indicate that past leaks, which date to the 1940s, have contaminated the groundwater beneath the facility.

But little is publicly known about the condition of the military’s other tanks in Hawaii.

Nine of the tanks are operated by the Navy at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai. There is one tank maintained by the Army at Schofield Barracks on Oahu, and 16 tanks that have been taken out of service.

Twelve tanks at Pearl Harbor, operated by the Navy, were taken out of operation in 1990 and are awaiting funding for demolition and removal, according to Tom Clements, a Navy spokesman.

The U.S. Air Force also maintained four tanks at the Kipapa Fuel Storage Annex in Mililani that were shut down in 1993. 

“I think it is important to put into perspective what else is out there,” said Gill. 

Clements said that other than the leaks at Red Hill, there haven’t been any reports of leaks at its other fuel tanks, including those that have been taken out of service.

‘There were no environmental standards’

The age of the tanks, like those at Red Hill, raises concerns about their design and longevity.

“Back in the 1940s, tanks were not designed to the environmental standards that they are today,” said Linder. “There were no environmental standards.” 

He said that in earlier decades tanks were made out of an array of questionable materials — one tank in California, for instance, was made out of redwood. 

The tanks operated in Hawaii are made out of either steel or concrete, according to the health department. 

Linder said he would need to see more details about their design in order to assess their fitness.

The military’s additional tanks are nothing on the scale of those at Red Hill. The facility holds the equivalent fuel of roughly 10,000 corner gas stations, according to Linder. Each underground tank is big enough to engulf the Aloha Tower.

A typical fuel tank at a gas station holds about 10,000 gallons of fuel, while each Red Hill tank holds about 12.7 million gallons of fuel. The tanks at Kipapa held 2.6 million gallons of fuel each. The Pearl Harbor tanks held 18,000 to 422,00 gallons of fuel and the tanks at the Pacific Missile Range Facility currently have a capacity of 50,000 gallons each, according to the health department. The Army’s tank at Schofield holds 500 gallons.

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