A new agreement between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Hawaii Department of Health, the U.S. Navy and the Defense Logistics Agency outlines a plan to upgrade underground fuel storage tanks in Red Hill over the next 20 years.

The tanks, which are the largest underground fuel storage facility in the U.S., spilled 27,000 gallons in January 2014, threatening the island’s drinking water.

The agencies signed the final agreement, known as an Administrative Order on Consent, this week after reviewing over 140 public comments on a draft released in June.

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

“EPA listened to the public, and the result is a strengthened agreement,” Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest, said in a press release.

But the agreement drew criticism, particularly for its 20-year timeline. Critics noted that the final version didn’t incorporate many suggestions from the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which called the draft version inadequate in its official comments.

Ernest Lau, who leads the Board of Water Supply, said he’s concerned that the agreement allows the Navy to take 20 years to fortify the fuel tanks after a two-year study period.

“I would hope that even though the timelines are there in this executed agreement that they try to do the work in a much faster timeline,” Lau said, pointing out that some of the tanks are corroding. “Twenty-two years is a long time.”

The tanks are located above aquifers that most Oahu residents rely upon for water and hold up to 250 million gallons of fuel.

“The potential for catastrophic environmental and economic damages caused by fuel releases from one or more of the 20 field-constructed tanks at Red Hill is quite high,” the agency wrote in its comments.

Dean Higuchi, a spokesman for the EPA, told Civil Beat that the process doesn’t have to take 20 years.

“The timeframe could be a lot shorter,” he said, noting that the finalized agreement includes language that requires the Navy to install the “best available practicable technology” as soon as possible.

Higuchi said that the tanks are unique and there’s no easy fix.

“This is not where there’s an off-the-shelf solution that we can pull out and just say, ‘Implement,'” he said. “The hope is and the push is to get it done as reasonably and quickly as possible.”

Changes and Criticism

The agreement requires the military to conduct a two-year study of the hydrogeology of Red Hill and options for upgrading the tanks. The Navy will have two decades to upgrade the facility.

The revised version incorporates public comments by requiring the installation of more monitoring wells and addressing the repair and maintenance of tanks. It also mandates annual public meetings to report progress.

Other updates to the agreement will facilitate the involvement of additional stakeholders, including the Board of Water Supply and Department of Land and Natural Resources. The amendments also call on the Navy to consider alternative locations for fuel storage.

But Sen. Laura Thielen said the changes ignored the two biggest proposals that were aimed at preventing future spills: requiring the Navy to double-line the tanks and speeding up the timeline.

“The problem with setting too long a deadline is that’s equally likely to be extended,” she said.

Marti Townsend, executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, took an even harder line in a press release.

“There is no justification for exposing the people of Hawaii to this kind of risk,” Townsend said. “The U.S. Navy and the industries that rely on these fuel reserves should immediately identify new storage arrangements that comply with today’s strict environmental standards and retire these historic tanks.”

But the agreement drew praise from Sen. Brian Schatz, who called it a “pragmatic step forward to protect Oahu’s drinking water.”

Gov. David Ige said in a press release that the agreement will increase transparency and hold the Navy accountable.

“The state will be safer and better off with this agreement than it would be without it,” Ige said. “We listened carefully to the concerns of stakeholders whose input has strengthened the administrative order. This is the start of long-overdue action to make Hawaii safer.”

Click here to go to the EPA’s site and read the documents related to the Red Hill agreement.

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