Three monitoring wells will be built near where 27,000 gallons of fuel spilled from the U.S. Navy’s Red Hill fuel storage tanks in January 2014.

Red Hill is the largest underground fuel storage facility in the nation with a capacity of 250 million gallons. The 2014 spill came dangerously close to an aquifer used for Oahu’s drinking water, and there are already 10 monitoring wells in the area. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Hawaii Department of Health, the U.S. Navy and the Defense Logistics Agency rolled out a 20-year plan to fix the tanks in December 2015. After the work plan was released, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply responded with 17 pages of criticism, comments and recommendations. The board said parts of the draft were ambiguous and additional testing and studies needed to be completed in the area.

Board of Water Supply Ernest Lau points to areas near the Navy's 20 fuel tanks below Red Hill by the black dot looking things below his left hand during EPA teleconferenced meeting with the BWS board. 28 june 2016
The Honolulu Board of Water Supply’s Ernest Lau shows a map of the Navy’s storage tanks on Red Hill. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Ernest Lau, manager and chief engineer of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, announced at a public meeting Monday that the county was in the process of acquiring a well-drilling permit to build a petroleum monitoring well on board-owned land southwest of the Navy’s fuel storage tanks.

Dialing in via videoconference from San Francisco, Steven Linder, program manager of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Pacific Southwest region, confirmed that by the end of July, the Navy planned to begin installation of two monitoring wells on its property, south of the storage tanks. The Navy has identified two more locations to put monitoring wells nearby.

The Board of Water Supply’s well would likely be completed before the Navy’s wells, Lau said.

The EPA also announced that it would be testing for about one-sixth of the contaminants it had originally listed as potential concerns.

Bob Pallarino, Red Hill project coordinator for the EPA, said the agency narrowed the list to test to 12 contaminants by looking at the specific fuels housed in the Navy’s tanks. Those tanks haven’t contained gasoline since the 1960s but now contain marine diesel and jet fuel — less hazardous to the water supply than gasoline, he said.

Board of Water Supply teleconferenced meeting with EPA folks about the leaking Red Hill fuel tanks. 27 june 2016
The Board of Water Supply pressed the EPA during the meeting to test for additional contaminants. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Lau noted that groundwater moves and said remnants of contamination from an earlier era may still pose a threat to the water supply. The EPA said that wasn’t a problem as far as it was aware, but additional testing for compounds other than what was spilled recently was outside of its scope and would pose additional costs.

The EPA said renovated tanks might be double-walled or get a new, single liner — it’s weighing the cost against benefits and looking into expected repair and maintenance needs before deciding which to choose.

The EPA said the Red Hill case was not only a high priority in the agency’s Pacific Southwest region division, but nationwide. Usually, Linder said the EPA would just clean up the spill, but in the Red Hill case, it’s looking at improving the tank’s infrastructure as well, going back to original documents from when the tanks were constructed.

When looking at what went wrong when the leak occurred, the EPA found the contractor assigned to its maintenance hadn’t worked with similar tanks before and used different procedures than the Navy’s past contractors, Linder said. In the future, he said the EPA’s suggestions would help the Navy have tighter contracts with less room for interpretation.

Board of Water Supply building. 27 june 2016
The Board of Water Supply has been critical of proposed work plans to upgrade the Red Hill tanks. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Lau reminded public attendees that the board had refused to sign non-disclosure agreements that would prevent members from divulging information related to national defense and procurement. He thanked the EPA for its participation in the public meeting in hopes of promoting transparency and community involvement.

In testimony, Virginia Pressler, director of the state Health Department, said the state needs to protect its water supply while still recognizing the “critical role” the Navy plays in Hawaii.

Conservationists thanked the board members for their attempts at transparency and efforts to press the EPA for more accountability, but called for the removal of the Navy’s tanks altogether and testing of more contaminants, including pesticides.

Joshua Noga, conservation coordinator of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, said the U.S. military didn’t have the best environmental record and deemed the 20-year plan “woefully inadequate.”

“Our water aquifer is not something that I would like to put at risk,” Noga said.

Duane Miyashiro, chair of Board of Water Supply, said the public was justified in its concerns about improving water quality.

“At the end of the day, we really want to find out: Is our water safe?” Miyashiro said.

A March EPA update said drinking water tested near Red Hill was safe and the Navy needed to continue studying the area’s geography before drilling to clean up fuel near the tanks.

The tanks meet “current industry standards for the storage and management of bulk fuel” and experts solicited from various entities found “no immediate deficiencies requiring correction,” according to a Navy press release in June.

In December 2014, the Navy said petroleum levels detected in the ground were below “environmental action levels,” but the Health Department was concerned by the 300-foot spread of the spill.

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