Twenty-two years is too long to wait while Hawaii’s groundwater is threatened with contamination by the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility.

The Navy wants 22 years to study the issue, and do something about the tanks. However, the 18 huge, old underground fuel tanks sitting under Red Hill need attention much sooner.

This is a serious — potentially catastrophic — situation for Hawaii nei, and 22 years is unacceptable. Each of the 18 tanks holds 12.5 million gallons of toxic fuel. Thousands of gallons have already leaked from tanks that sit above a major water aquifer in Hawaii. It is an exceedingly complex issue that needs attention much sooner.

On a tour of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility on April 20, our group stood in the middle of tank 19, our final destination. There were 15 of us: members of several neighborhood boards, and Navy personnel, such as our tour leader, Lt. Col. Blake Whittle, Aaron Poentis, with Navy geology, and Bill Rudich with Defense Logistics Agency.

An interior view of one of the Red Hill tanks. Courtesy U.S. Navy

We stood on a long bridge that juts out into the middle of tank 19. I peered over the edge of the bridge railing, down to a dizzying 150 feet below, and then up to the top of the tank, another 100 feet above. I imagined the enormous amount of fuel of 12 million gallons, that each tank holds. If a tank develops leaks, it takes five days to empty it. Looking across 50 feet to one side, we saw the steel liners, big heavy slabs of quarter-inch steel plates that are welded together and lining the tank. I asked the lieutenant colonel if this was the original steel. It is. The tanks were built in 1941.

Most of us, being intelligent humans, are ambivalent about the military. We are in that middle ground between adoration and fear. We are relieved and thankful that there are people with weapons, who sometimes put their lives on the line, to fight off others who would kill us and take our cherished land. And we are pained and skeptical that the billions of dollars spent for defense of our homeland sometimes has little to do with our homeland.

‘Mistakes Are Made’

We want to believe that the military is doing the right thing. We want to trust. Often we have to trust because we are unable to get information. It has been classified and unavailable, and much of it is still classified. And also we have to trust because it is complex and technical.

But today, in the age of instant information, and more education, the military is also evolving. It is giving us more information. It is trying to be more accessible. There are those who are skeptical and want more.

Mistakes are made. Humans make mistakes. This is what the lieutenant colonel told us. The 27,000 gallons of jet fuel that leaked from tank 5 in 2014, he said, was because of human error. One worker with a company contracted by the Navy, was finishing the welding, perched on scaffolding, when he mistakenly drilled a hole in tank 5. This hole was not discovered until the tank was filled and leaking. Our leader repeated this information a number of times, and added, “This company is no longer in business.”

Tank 5 was nearing a completed checkout when this mistake happened, he continued. After it was filled, it leaked 27,000 gallons above the aquifer. We all know that mistakes happen.

We expect and deserve more. There is more knowledge available today, and more sharing of information by the military, but there are still unanswered questions.

AECOM, an international company with many military contracts, has developed a computer model of what the ground under the tanks might look like. You may have seen it during the Moanalua Middle School event hosted by the Navy on March 14 this year. It is a model. The ground under the tanks is vast and complex, and little is known about it.

We want to believe that the military is doing the right thing.

Our technological and scientific abilities today are impressive and astounding, but we do not know how the water flows in this vast area under the 18 tanks. There are some deep holes that have been drilled to try to discover more about the geology of the ground under the tanks by studying how water flows, but the plain fact is that geologists do not know what the complicated underground is like. This is critical to understanding how leaks will flow.

The fuel is stored in these tanks in the event of war, when it would be difficult for fuel to be delivered by tanker, as it is now for day-to-day use. In a wartime situation, ships would travel from the mainland, presumably on the way farther west. They would need to be refilled from these tanks so that they could continue to the war zone. The fuel is also available during Rim of the Pacific exercises. One of the reasons Hawaii is chosen for RIMPAC exercises involving 26 other countries is because of the fuel stored in these tanks. It is easily pumped down to Pearl Harbor and delivered to the many ships involved. As we know, the EPA is undergoing changes. There is a regular EPA website that is maintained, and there is an archived EPA site that is not maintained.

One study is called Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility Final Groundwater Protection Plan and was prepared in 2008 by TEC Inc. of Ohio. This study spent $120,000 researching secondary containment and leak detection technology options. The study is particularly helpful because there is more specific information about the history of other leaks at Red Hill besides the 2014 leak. This leak history is what is missing from most of the documents provided by the Navy and the EPA. This leak history shows that since 1947, leaks have amounted to more than 200,000 gallons of fuel.

The Red Hill Fuel Storage Facility Task Force was created to study the leak situation of 2014 and report to the state of Hawaii in 2015. This body was composed of the Hawaii Department of Health, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Navy, one member from the state House of Representatives, one member from the state Senate, the Department of Land and Natural Resources, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply and two members from the community.

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

The task force studied the 2008 report and many other documents. They offered a number of recommendations that have to do with transparency, and with more diligent research. These recommendations have not been adequately addressed.

They recommended “a scientific peer review and evaluation of the sampling and test methods and detection limits used by the Navy to develop a uniform monitoring protocol. Understanding the short and long term effects of Red Hill leaks needs reliable peer-reviewed and vetted scientific data in order to accurately understand the issues and make sound decisions on those issues. Professional scientific peer-review and auditing is standard practice in all good testing and research studies undertaken to insure data validity, quality and transparency.” It appears that this has not been done.

In a strongly worded letter to Mark Manfredi, the Navy’s Red Hill Regional Program Director, the EPA and state Department of Health stated that “the Navy continues to demonstrate insufficient understanding of the expertise and level of effort necessary to develop technically defensible environmental assessment and modeling deliverables required by the Red Hill Administrative Order on Consent. Further, the Navy does not appear to have the appropriate personnel directing this work.”  

The Hawaii Board of Water Supply is also concerned about the Navy’s analysis in reaching conclusions about the work to be done on the Red Hill tanks. In a detailed letter Feb. 13 to the EPA and the Hawaii Department of Health, the BWS questioned the Navy’s methods and modeling. They also urged the Navy and its contractors to provide materials to subject matter experts, as the Navy agreed to do.

‘Numerous False Reports’

Back in 2015, the Red Hill Task Force, which included subject matter specialists, such as an engineer with Board of Water Supply, urged that information be provided. It seems that information has not been forthcoming.

In background provided by the Navy, the Red Hill Task Force report noted that “each tank was originally built with a leak detection system. The Navy later determined (in 1970) that this initial leak detection system had design flaws which resulted in numerous false reports. This system was subsequently removed.”

These false reports are not explained further? Why were they deemed false, and what do the reports say?

After poring over hundreds of pages of these studies, there is still not enough transparent and clear information given. A Navy audit in 2010 also “determined that the environment in the Pearl Harbor area has not been sufficiently protected.” The public needs questions answered, and the repeated recommendations from the regulatory agencies, the EPA and the Department of Health need to be addressed.

The Navy allowed no photos on our tour until we were near the exit, standing next to a plaque which says “National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.” I joined members of the Aiea Neighborhood Board for a photo next to the plaque. There are many photos online. You can see an empty tank, perhaps the one we stood in. But you cannot get a feel from photos for the enormity of the problem of a catastrophic leak.

The Navy admits that cleaning up a big leak would be next to impossible. Our once pristine water would be poisoned and undrinkable. We would have to get our water from somewhere else. Where? One person with the Navy tells me that much of Oahu’s water could be affected, not just Halawa aquifer. The Halawa shaft provides 25 percent of the Honolulu water, from Moanalua out to Hawaii Kai.

A public hearing on underground tank rules is scheduled for May 31 at 9 a.m., State Laboratory Auditorium, 2725 Waimano Home Road, Pearl City.

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