Almost six years after 27,000 gallons of jet fuel leaked from an underground tank at Red Hill, the U.S. Navy says it’s not realistic or affordable to fortify its 20 tanks with double walls.

If it can’t come up with a fix to prevent leaks, the Navy says it will drain the fuel at Red Hill – but not until around 2045.

That’s eight years later than a previous commitment made to state regulators.

“The plan is to continue to modernize the facility,” said Navy Rear Adm. Robert Chadwick in an interview Tuesday. “If we can’t get to a secondary containment solution, we are committing to defueling the facility in the 2045 timeframe.”

Navy Rear Adm. Robert Chadwick, pictured Tuesday at an event at the Oahu Veterans Center,  said a leak like the one in 2014 “could never happen again.” Many concerned citizens aren’t taking his word for it. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat

The undetermined long-term solution and extended timeline is distressing residents, environmental advocates and the Board of Water Supply, all of whom want the tanks to be double lined or, better yet, removed immediately.

The underground tanks are located over an aquifer that provides drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai. Fuel has been detected in Honolulu’s groundwater, but it hasn’t yet appeared in the drinking water.

The Board of Water Supply’s chief engineer said on Thursday he wants to keep it that way.

“We have an opportunity here for prevention,” said Ernest Lau during a meeting at the Hawaii Capitol. “Don’t fool around with our drinking water aquifer. It is precious. It is the only resource we have in this area.”

The Navy signed an administrative order on consent, or AOC, in 2015 after the fuel release the year prior. It’s an enforceable agreement with the Hawaii Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, regulators who will ultimately approve or deny the Navy’s proposal.

Growing Frustration

The agencies are currently accepting public comments on the Navy’s plan which also includes more frequent “tank tightness testing,” more water monitoring wells, use of corrosion-resistant epoxy and other upgrades. Even if the Navy drains the tanks of fuel in 2045 or later, it wants to keep the tanks in place in case they’re needed for war.

Lau said he is frustrated that the Navy is resisting relocating the tanks away from the aquifer and said that as long as the signatories of the AOC “stay entrenched,” it will be a “lose-lose situation.”

Board of Water Supply Ernest Lau holds evacuation diagram if dam is compromised.
Board of Water Supply chief engineer Ernest Lau is frustrated with the Navy over its refusal to relocate the fuel tanks at Red Hill. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“We’re getting tired of having the same concerns over and over again and not being heard,” he said.

During any given year, there is a 27.6% chance of a leak up to 30,000 gallons of fuel, according to a report by ABS Consulting, a company hired by the Navy. That estimate may be a best case scenario because it’s based on normal conditions without fire, flooding or earthquakes.

There is a 34% chance of a release of over 120,000 gallons in the next 100 years, the report states. Chronic, undetected releases are expected to total 5,803 gallons per year, ABS found. 

In a letter to regulators in May, Capt. Marc Delao downplayed those findings and said the Navy disagreed with its own consultant. He wrote that the Navy is concerned that the assessment “may not be absolutely accurate” and that the estimates don’t align with historical data.

“This suggests further effort is needed to refine the models used in the quantitative assessment to improve accuracy,” he wrote.

But when it comes to putting in the effort to nail down the numbers, Delao said the Navy won’t be doing that.

“The Navy has said they don’t think it’s worth going back and trying to correct the quantitative calculations done by their own consultant,” Brian McDonald, a technical consultant, told the Board of Water Supply in August.

“Instead, they’d like to switch, to modify the AOC such that we do qualitative assessments. Rather than calculate the probabilities, they would prefer to assemble teams of experts and base this on expert opinion and judgment rather than the rigorous calculations that were in the ABS report.”

Concerned citizens want the military to double-line the Red Hill fuel tanks or remove them altogether. The Navy says the costs of double-walling the tanks isn’t justified but it will try to find an equivalent solution or drain the fuel by 2045. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat

The Sierra Club is calling on the Department of Health and the EPA to reject the Navy’s plan and order the military to relocate the tanks.

“Basically the Navy has selected the least protective, least costly and least ambitious option,” said Jodi Malinoski, a policy advocate for the Sierra Club.

On Tuesday, residents viewed posters, dioramas and videos about the fuel tanks at a public meeting at the Oahu Veterans Center, and Navy officials were available to answer questions.

Chadwick said the military and the Hawaii National Guard rely on the fuel at Red Hill every day. The military can also count on the resource in a time of crisis.

“Obviously with China and Russia becoming more aggressive, that strategic reserve, we hope we don’t need it, but it’s there,” he said, adding that the tanks are an asset to both national and state security.

“God forbid there’s a natural disaster or a cyberattack that takes out electricity on the island, Red Hill is the only safety net for Hawaii,” Chadwick said. “Red Hill has the ability to get fuel not just to the base but to the international airport, to the port and to the electrical plant because it’s gravity-fed.”

According to Chadwick, a fuel leak like the one in 2014 could never happen again.

“That was a case of poor quality assurance practice by a contractor,” he said. “People can rest assured that what happened in 2014, that type of event could not happen again with the procedures we have in place now.”

Chadwick said military members are just as passionate about water quality as anyone else.

“We live here too,” he said.

Some attendees of the meeting were not convinced.

“This entire thing is complete and utter bullshit,” said Kevin O’Leary, a Kalihi resident and former journalist for the Honolulu Weekly.

“This is publicity promotion by the military and it has nothing to do with the actual issue at hand. They’re trying to show this magnificent engineering feat that they’ve pulled off, and it’s wonderful, but it doesn’t belong where it is.”

The Hawaii Department of Health and the federal Environmental Protection Agency are soliciting public comments on the Navy’s plan. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat

Army veteran Pete Shimazaki Doktor said the Navy’s proposal is “insulting.”

“That’s very dishonorable,” he said. “They’re supposed to protect and defend the people, and instead they are in fact a threat to the people here.”

Watching the water crisis in Flint, Michigan – in which politicians cut costs for water and exposed 100,000 people to toxic lead, some fatally  –  Doktor said he worries about Honolulu’s drinking water and his own 7-year-old daughter.

When the Navy was exploring its options, it said that double-lining the tanks would cost 10 times as much as its preferred plan. The Navy’s presentation on Thursday said the technology to do that in a practicable manner doesn’t exist currently.

Doktor scoffed at the idea that the military can’t afford it.

“They always have money for generations of war,” he said. “They used 1940s technology to build it in three years. Now you’re trying to tell us it’s too expensive to redo?”

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