Memo to Hawaii’s congressional delegation: You have urgent work to do, because the federal government you help oversee is imperiling the health and well-being of Oahu, and it’s doing so with impunity. 

All four of our elected representatives in Washington, D.C., have voiced concerns at one time or another about the threat that the U.S. Navy’s giant underground fuel tanks pose to a big part of the Honolulu water supply.

But now that the Navy has essentially said it doesn’t want to abide by its previous agreement to either fix the tanks to prevent further massive leaks or drain them by 2037 (now it’s saying by 2045), just voicing concerns inside the U.S. Capitol is not enough.

The Navy is being a bad neighbor, and Hawaii can no longer stand for it.

This interior view of one of the Red Hill jet fuel storage tanks on Oahu gives you some idea of the scale of the problem. These giant leaking tanks are hard to fix but Oahu residents need clean drinking water. Courtesy U.S. Navy

It’s been almost six years since 27,000 gallons of jet fuel leaked from a tank at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.

The 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 Navy signed an administrative order of consent, or AOC, in 2015, giving it two years to study the problem and another 20 years to either fix it or relocate the tanks. It’s an enforceable agreement with the Hawaii Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Even that length of time was too long for some environmental officials, including those at the Honolulu Board of Water Supply.

Now the Navy says it needs up to eight more years because it’s banking on technological advances that haven’t occurred yet to help it make the tanks safer while avoiding the costly process of double-walling them.

Meanwhile, “the potential for catastrophic environmental and economic damages caused by fuel releases from one or more of the 20 field-constructed tanks at Red Hill is quite high,” the Board of Water Supply wrote in its comments on revisions to the AOC that are under consideration.

Even the Navy’s own consultant has said that during any given year, there is a 27.6% chance of a leak of up to 30,000 gallons of fuel, and there’s a 34% chance of more than 120,000 gallons leaking in the next century. The Navy now says it disagrees with its consultant.

Public comments are currently being accepted on the Navy’s proposed AOC revisions, and a Honolulu City Council committee weighed in Wednesday, calling for their rejection.

“We have an opportunity here to prevent contamination — tank-within-a-tank is the best solution,” Erwin Kawata, program administrator in the Board of Water Supply’s water quality division, told the council members. “If that is unfeasible, the fuel should be removed and relocated away from the groundwater.”

The Navy clearly does not share that sense of urgency as it pleads for more time and hopes that a cheaper alternative will materialize. That’s why our congressional delegation has to get more involved in ending this bureaucratic travesty.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard sit on the Armed Services committees in their respective chambers, with Hirono being the ranking Democrat on the Senate panel.

Sen. Brian Schatz and Rep. Ed Case serve on the Appropriations committees in their respective chambers.

All four are in positions where they can bring pressure to bear on the Navy  to adopt a more responsible approach to alleviating the immense environmental threat posed by the Red Hill fuel tanks.

Every member of Congress must decide how much political capital to expend on a particular issue, but with the Navy’s alarming foot-dragging, anything less than a full-court press would likely fall short.

It’s time for some serious arm-twisting.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author