Some critics say the Navy isn’t moving fast enough to comply with an 18-month-old agreement to upgrade the underground fuel system at Red Hill.

There’s disagreement about whether the project is actually behind schedule, but it’s still in the information-gathering stage and state and federal officials have complained about the quality of data the Navy has provided so far.

The facility has 20 tanks with a total capacity of 250 million gallons of fuel. It is the largest underground fuel tank system in the nation, and the Navy says it’s essential to military operations in the Pacific.

But the aging tanks are near two Oahu aquifers that supply thousands of residents with drinking water, and they have a history of leaking. In January 2014, 27,000 gallons of fuel spilled, prompting a public outcry and regulatory agencies to take action.

Security fence at Red Hill Underground Fuel Facility. 1.29.14 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat
The security fence at Red Hill underground fuel tank facility in 2014. Access is restricted because it’s still an operational military facility. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

In October 2015, the Navy, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Hawaii Department of Health signed an “administrative order on consent” that set out a 22-year timeline to upgrade the tanks. The agencies’ press release announcing the agreement said the Navy would “evaluate potential cleanup methods and assess the risk the facility poses to Oahu’s drinking water resources, all within the next two years.”

But the Navy is still six months away from turning in a report analyzing various options for upgrading the tanks, and state and federal officials anticipate it will take three to six months to choose the best one.

“I can’t say the exact schedule because it will depend on a number of factors,” said Tom Huetteman, assistant director in the Land Division for EPA Region 9. “Once we have the document on hand we will get to work.”

Steven Chang of the health department said additional reports on assessing risks and investigating fuel releases aren’t expected until next year.

The EPA and DOH sent a letter to the Navy  last month criticizing the quality of the data it has provided so far.

“They didn’t have a full, good grasp of the degree of the work that’s involved.” — Erwin Kawata, Honolulu Board of Water Supply

“The Navy has spent almost two years on the environmental investigation and modeling aspects of the Red Hill AOC, yet little additional information about environmental conditions in the area has been collected,” the regulatory agencies wrote.

In response, the Navy hired more consultants to beef up its expertise. Mark Manfredi, the lead Navy official on the project, acknowledged the data fell short but said that doesn’t mean the final reports will be delayed.

Manfredi said since the agreement was signed in October 2015, the Navy has spent about $20 million on various improvements including installing additional monitoring wells, increasing the frequency of tank testing and completing multiple reports.

Huetteman, Chang, and Manfredi all say that the process is still on schedule.

But Erwin Kawata from the Honolulu Board of Water Supply said the agencies gave the impression that studies and analysis would get done within the first two years, and that’s not the case.

“It’s going to go beyond that,” he said. “There’s just so many technical issues, concepts, principles that need to be evaluated. They didn’t have a full, good grasp of the degree of the work that’s involved.”

He thinks it will take longer than expected to decide which alternative to pursue, and said he’s concerned about the potential for additional contamination if the process of upgrading the tanks is dragged out.

Jodi Malinoski from the Sierra Club Hawaii is also worried that the Navy is falling behind schedule. She’s frustrated that the Navy gets 22 years to upgrade the tanks to begin with.

“By the time it’s finished the tanks will be nearly 100 years old and the tanks were not built to last forever,” she said.

Kawata was disappointed that the Legislature didn’t approve a bill this year that would have required the Navy to double-line the tanks.

Sen. Mike Gabbard introduced the proposal with the support of groups like the Sierra Club Hawaii, but it died quickly in the Senate.

Chang said the bill was premature because figuring out the best way to prevent future leaks requires more analysis.

“It’s not an off-the-shelf solution,” Chang said.

Meanwhile, lack of staffing and resources is a looming potential challenge. The health department has been trying to hire an engineer, geologist and environmental health specialist to better understand the Navy’s reports, and the state agency is bracing for potential budget cuts because many of its positions are federally funded.

Chang himself is thinking of retiring, in part because the division is moving from Kakaako to a new location in Pearl City and he lives in East Honolulu, although he’s considering staying on as a volunteer.

Manfredi said he understands concerns about potential delays, but that the Navy is taking the process seriously.

“At the end of the day the Navy isn’t gaining anything by delaying any of this work,” he said. “The longer it takes us to make a decision the less time we have to do this. It’s in our best interest to get this knocked out as soon as we can.”

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