Hawaii lawmakers plan to consider a bill Wednesday to require the Navy to upgrade aging underground fuel storage tanks at Red Hill by July 2027 or shut down the facility by July 2030.

Sen. Mike Gabbard introduced Senate Bill 1259 which would require the state Department of Health to adopt rules for “field-constructed underground storage tanks and tank systems” to ensure they conform with recently revised federal regulations and comply with state law. Currently such tanks are exempt from certain requirements.

Fence along ridge line on Red Hill above the military housing. Located below in the mountain in the underground fuel tanks.
Underground fuel storage tanks at Red Hill have already leaked multiple times, and city officials fear that they will contaminate water that serves one-fourth of metropolitan Honolulu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

According to the Sierra Club, there are 38 underground storage tank facilities that would be affected by the bill.

But Gabbard says he introduced the bill particularly to target the Red Hill underground fuel storage facility. It’s the largest of its kind in Hawaii and stores up to 187 million gallons of fuel per day. The tanks, which date back to the 1940s, have a history of leaking.

They’re located only about 100 feet above a federally designated sole-source aquifer drinking water source and have already contaminated part of the city’s groundwater.

Concerns about the risks posed by the tanks prompted the Navy to enter into an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Health two years ago to fortify the tanks.

But the agreement was widely criticized as ineffective because it gave the Navy more than two decades to complete the improvements.

Since a tank spilled 27,000 gallons in January 2014, “the Navy modified its quality assurance practices and policies, increased testing frequency and capabilities, and improved facility operating procedures to help prevent fuel releases from happening again in the future,” the Navy said in a press release.

Gabbard doesn’t think the Navy has made enough progress so far and thinks the timeline for the upgrades is too long.

“We can’t continue to drag our feet on this,” he said.

Mike Gabbard 

The local Sierra Club backs the measure and has been urging members to testify in favor of it.

“Please do not wait until our water is irreversibly contaminated to take action,” said the group’s leader, Marti Townsend, in written testimony to lawmakers.

Rear Adm. John Fuller, commander of the Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific, said in an emailed statement that the Navy will request “sufficient time” to complete the agreement in testimony to lawmakers Wednesday.

He didn’t specify whether the Navy will oppose the bill and a spokeswoman for the Navy declined to clarify.

“Drinking water from Red Hill continues to be safe, and we are committed to keeping it safe,” Fuller said in a written statement. “Red Hill tanks are not leaking. We completed tank tightness testing on all operating tanks last week. The AOC process is working and on track.”

The underground fuel tanks at Red Hill threaten water supply that serves one-fourth of metropolitan Honolulu, from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai. Courtesy of the EPA

But the Honolulu Board of Water Supply doesn’t think that’s adequate. Erwin Kawata, program administrator for the water quality division, said in a phone interview that while the AOC process has involved many discussions, the actual tank upgrades haven’t begun.

“The work plans have not yet been finalized nor has the work been started,” Kawata said.

Passing Gabbard’s bill would cut the timeline for upgrading the tanks in half and decrease the risk that the island’s drinking water supply would be contaminated, he said.

“It’s much more stringent (than the Administrative Order on Consent) and much more rigid and in our view it’s much more protective of the environment because it’s calling for actions sooner rather than later,” he said.

Eighteen senators have signed onto the bill, but the proposal must pass four committees before it reaches the Senate floor. Still, Kawata is hopeful lawmakers will be supportive.

“Our wells currently don’t show any contamination whatsoever, but that’s today. What is the situation going to look like 10 years from now, 20 years from now?” Kawata said.

A hearing is scheduled for 1:20 p.m. Wednesday before two committees.

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