The U.S. Navy has detected low levels of fuel contamination at two new monitoring wells that it recently drilled to gauge whether a plume of leaked fuel from its massive Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility is migrating toward island drinking water supplies.

Navy officials said Thursday that further studies are needed to verify the accuracy of the results and whether the fuel is from Red Hill. The fuel detected in the groundwater may also be from a lubricant used while drilling the wells, said Mike Williamson, a vice commander at Naval Facilities Engineering Command.

Williamson said that he wasn’t particularly worried about the findings.

“If it was higher, I would be much more concerned,” he said, noting that the petroleum products detected in the wells are below “environmental action levels.”

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

Chain at security fence at Red Hill Underground Fuel Facility.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

However, the findings have added a degree of urgency to negotiations between state and federal regulators and the Navy to implement better leak detection and prevention systems at the World War II-era facility where an estimated 27,000 gallons of fuel leaked in January. Decades of leaks at the facility have contaminated the groundwater beneath the facility, posing a risk to Oahu drinking water supplies, studies have shown.

The two new monitoring wells were drilled at the urging of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply.

Gary Gill, deputy director for environmental health for the state Department of Health, was less sanguine about the findings than the Navy, noting that the results indicate that the plume of fuel beneath the facility is much larger than previously known, expanding at least 300 feet outward from the facility’s 20 underground tanks.

He said more wells would have to be drilled to determine the extent of the plume.

“This is a very significant understanding,” Gill said. “This is the first time that we have confirmed that petroleum contamination has expanded in the groundwater beyond the area immediately below the tanks.”

He added that while more testing is needed to scientifically validate the findings, it’s likely that the fuel is from Red Hill.

“There is no other significant source of contamination in the immediate area other than around Red Hill and I would personally be very surprised if we were to determine some other contamination source,” Gill said.

The Navy’s 20 underground tanks — each big enough to encompass Aloha Tower — sit just 100 feet above an aquifer. The county’s Halawa and Moanalua drinking water wells lie a mile from the facility and supply one-quarter of urban Honolulu’s drinking water.

Like a plume of ink in a swimming pool, health officials are concerned that the fuel will migrate through the aquifer and toward the drinking water wells.

The latest findings were revealed during a Thursday meeting of the Red Hill Task Force,  composed of government officials, the Navy and community representatives and convened to submit recommendations to the Hawaii Legislature related to the future of the facility.

The state health department, Honolulu Board of Water Supply and Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources are recommending that the best solution for protecting the groundwater is to double-line the aging tanks within 10 years.

“There’s no question in my mind that should these tanks remain in operation, the best possible protection of our groundwater is this secondary containment,” said Gill.

Williamson disagreed, arguing that the matter should be further studied.

“I’m not sure that the best solution is some kind of secondary containment,” he said, noting that it could give people a “false sense of security.”

He declined to estimate how much double-lining the tanks would cost.

Williamson emphasized that the Navy had made improvements at the facility in recent years to help prevent a catastrophic leak at the facility.

The recommendations to the Legislature are expected to be finalized in the coming days.

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