The U.S. Navy should be forced to shut down its massive Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility unless it double lines its 18 active underground tanks within 10 years to prevent leaks, according to a draft report from a state task force formed to study the facility and make recommendations to the Hawaii Legislature.

The draft report contains a number of other suggestions to ensure that Navy fuel doesn’t contaminate an aquifer that supplies one-fourth of the drinking water to urban Honolulu.

“Storage of up to 187 million gallons of fuel, 100 feet above a drinking water resource, is inherently dangerous to the environment,” according to the report.

The task force, composed of state health and city water officials, representatives of the Navy, community leaders, and state lawmakers, was formed by the Legislature after the Navy reported that an estimated 27,000 gallons of fuel had leaked at the facility in January.

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

Subsequent media reports revealed that there had been dozens of past leaks at the World War II-era facility dating to the 1940s and that groundwater beneath the facility is contaminated with petroleum.

The draft report also recommends that the Navy drill more wells to monitor whether past fuel contamination beneath the Halawa facility is migrating toward drinking water supplies and implement a better leak detection system.

The state health department should also duplicate the Navy’s testing of groundwater and drinking water to ensure that the results are accurate, and the state and city should improve public notification in the event of a leak at the facility, according to the report, which was presented at a task force meeting Thursday.

The report recommends that the health department’s share of Hawaii’s tax on imported oil, known as the barrel tax, be increased from 5 cents to 15 cents in order to beef up staffing and resources at the department’s solid and hazardous waste branch, which oversees Red Hill. Currently, the majority of tax revenues is deposited in the general fund.

Not all task force members agree with the recommendations, however, and they will likely be revised before being submitted to the Legislature next month, according to Gary Gill, deputy director for environment at the state Department of Health.

Mike Williamson, a vice commander at Naval Facilities Engineering Command, told the task force that the December 2024 date to double line its tanks is “not feasible.”

He also complained that the Navy had been shut out of the process in coming up with the draft report.

“I don’t feel like I’ve been a part of crafting and drafting of this document,” Williamson said. ”I want to be.”

That assertion led to a tense exchange that included Williamson and other Navy officials in the audience, and task force members, Gill and Ernie Lau, deputy director of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply.

All of the task force members were asked to submit input for the draft report at the last task force meeting in October and the Navy failed to do so, said Gill. Thus, the draft report was put together by the state health department with input from the city’s Board of Water Supply, which did submit recommendations.

Becky Hommon, an environmental attorney for Navy Region Hawaii who was in the audience, but is not on the task force, questioned the legitimacy of the Legislature’s request to have the Navy be part of the task force.

The state health department and EPA are currently in separate, confidential negotiations with the Navy on implementing better leak detection and prevention technology at Red Hill.

“To ask us to simultaneously be part of a state task force, I’m a bit confused as to how we could bifurcate our personality,” Hommon said.

Williamson urged the task force to align its recommendations to the Legislature with those that will be part of a separate agreement involving the Navy, EPA and health department.

But those negotiations have dragged on for months and there currently is no agreement, said Gill.

“We do not have an agreed statement of work,” said Gill. “I don’t know how close we are getting. We may not get close.”

One of the most important facets of the private negotiations involves a proposed requirement that the Navy double line its tanks, he said.

If the three parties don’t reach a settlement, the health department and EPA are expected to issue “administrative orders” instead, requiring the Navy to make improvements in accordance with state and federal laws.

But a private settlement is preferable, GIll has said in the past, in order to avoid potentially lengthy litigation and gain concessions from the Navy that aren’t necessarily afforded by law.

A separate route to forcing the Navy to double line its tanks could be through the Legislature.

You can read the draft report below: 

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