The Navy’s fuel tanks in Point Loma, California were old.
Built between 1917 and 1954, the tanks were installed during an era encompassing the Great Depression and the years following World War II. Racial segregation was still the law on the mainland and Hawaii wasn’t yet a state.
By the early 2000s, the San Diego area tanks were more than 40 years beyond their life expectancy, the Navy told the California Coastal Commission. So, perhaps it wasn’t surprising when military officials announced in 2006 that up to 1.5 million gallons of fuel had leaked into the ground. Nothing lasts forever.
With repeated discharges since 1999, a massive plume of fuel was sitting above the water table. The mess is still being cleaned up today, and true remediation will likely take decades or more, according to Sean McClain, a senior engineering geologist with the San Diego Water Board.
“Once the petroleum goes in the ground and it’s such a large area with very tight soils, it’s very difficult to remove,” he said.
It’s a story that mirrors the tale of Honolulu’s own World War II-era fuel tanks at Red Hill. The facility lies underground just 100 feet above Oahu’s drinking water aquifer.
In 2014, the corroding steel-lined tanks expelled over 27,000 gallons of JP-8, a kerosene-based jet fuel. That leak – which the Navy blamed on human error by a contractor – followed an estimated 1.2 million gallons spilled in dozens of leaks over the years, according to Navy estimates.
But what happened next at Point Loma is something that has baffled environmental advocates in Hawaii who have long demanded fortification or removal of the Red Hill facility: The Navy replaced the tanks.
“When the Point Loma project began, most of the existing above-ground and underground tanks had been in service for more than 70 years and were posing safety and environmental hazards,” engineers involved with the replacement wrote in Military Engineer magazine.
A $194 million overhaul began in 2005 and was finished in 2013. The Navy said 54 underground and above-ground storage tanks were replaced with eight tanks, all above ground.
The completed project is now serving as a model for the modernization of another fuel depot at Naval Base Kitsap in Washington, which has its own underground fuel storage system dating back to the beginning of World War II. The site in Manchester, a community abutting Puget Sound, experienced two “significant” fuel spills in 1990 totaling up to 50,000 gallons, according to a Navy report. That project could start as soon as 2021, according to a 2018 environmental assessment.
But at Red Hill, it’s a different story. Despite concerns from the community, environmental activists, the Board of Water Supply and others, the Navy has no plans to follow the model of Point Loma.
“It’s decades old, but it’s in good shape,” said Navy Capt. Marc DeLao, the commanding officer of Naval Facilities Engineering Command Hawaii. “The tanks are not leaking.”
Critics want the Navy to pursue a “tank within a tank” solution or move its fueling facility elsewhere. They say the risk of poisoning Oahu’s drinking water supply is too great.
“I guess they’re going to wait until something really has to get done when they’re leaking badly,” said Ernie Lau, chief engineer for the Board of Water Supply. “Then they’ll do something.”
Military officials say they’re banking on a scientific breakthrough that hasn’t yet been invented to install what it calls “double wall equivalency” to its tanks. The Navy has not specified what exactly that means. Should that plan fail, the Navy says it will remove fuel at Red Hill in “approximately the 2045 time frame.”
Compared to the decisive responses in California and Washington, the ambiguity in Honolulu has concerned citizens wondering what it will take to spur action.
“It doesn’t make sense to me why there would be such different conclusions from the same entity given the facts,” said Marti Townsend, executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii. “Why are they not relocating here when they did it there? It’s indefensible.”
McClain with the San Diego Water Board was puzzled too. He said the 2014 leak at Red Hill should be considered a warning.
“If you can prevent it now, I don’t see why Oahu would not want to do that,” he said. “California is a great example of what can happen and how long it takes to clean these messes up.”
Military officials involved in the Point Loma project were clear that age was a major motivation for replacing the facility.
“If this project is not provided, further deterioration of these aging tanks will increase the risk of significant fuel leaks into this ecologically sensitive site,” the Department of Defense wrote in a report justifying funding requests to Congress.
Unlike on Oahu, the area isn’t tapped for drinking water, according to McClain, the engineering geologist in San Diego. Instead, the main concern was potential human health impacts related to vapors under buildings the military owns, McClain said, but testing later showed it was not a threat.
The Navy came to its decisions in Point Loma and Manchester in the absence of the kind of public pressure that’s occurred in Hawaii. The military seemed to just decide it needed to be done, according to Laurie Walsh, a former engineer for the California Regional Water Quality Control Board who oversaw the Navy’s clean-up efforts.
“This project got put on a list for funding, and once it did, they were off,” said Walsh, who now works for the San Diego Water Board.
Catherine Frey, an underground storage tank specialist for the Washington Department of Ecology, echoed that sentiment. In Manchester, there was no apparent threat to public health or drinking water. The tanks are not in a residential area, she said. State regulators were not demanding the military move its facility.
The Department of Ecology “wasn’t involved in the decision to replace the tanks with the above-ground tanks, but we’re supportive of the decision to modernize and improve their fuel storage,” she said. “I mean, it’s 80 years old.”
At a certain point, it just becomes easier and more economical to upgrade, Frey said. A final environmental assessment report for the Manchester project says as much. It states the facility needs a revamp because EPA regulations have resulted in “costly new compliance requirements.”
“To want to modernize to better technology, better systems with better bells and whistles is perfectly understandable,” Frey said.
Mark Patton, who was the commanding officer at Point Loma at the time of the cleanup, declined to comment for this story and deferred questions to the Navy.
Glenn Schmitt, the chief civilian manager for fuel operations in Manchester, did not respond to an interview request.
The Missouri-based firm Burns & McDonnell was the lead engineer and designer for the Point Loma modernization project and will provide similar services in Manchester, according to Military Engineer magazine. Robert Kulash, a senior project manager for the company, also deferred questions to the Navy.
Asked about the different responses, DeLao suggested the fuel depots in California and Washington were worse off than the one at Red Hill.
“The condition that precipitated that work was tanks that were in disrepair and deteriorated and sort of past service life and leaky,” he said. “Our premise wouldn’t be that – isn’t that.”
Plus, the other locations are “much, much smaller” than Red Hill, DeLao said. Point Loma had a capacity of 42 million gallons of fuel. Manchester has a capacity for more than 75 million. Red Hill’s capacity is 250 million.
“Just wrapping your brain around how you would do that, you can see a little bit more clearly,” DeLao said of the other projects. “Whereas here, how would you do that? Don’t know, but we’re looking to see.”
Halawa resident Gina Hara, who has attended many public meetings on Red Hill, said to have toxic chemicals 100 feet above the aquifer in such large amounts is “alarming.” She said the projects in California and Washington show that the military is capable of operating in a way that works for its mission as well as the environment.
“They should be trying to defend the water as more important,” she said.
Construction of the 20 tanks at Red Hill began 80 years ago with crews working from 1940 to 1943.
Each 12.5 million-gallon tank is made up of a quarter-inch steel liner covered by concrete up to four feet thick. Layers of pressurized grout, red dirt, and gunite sit between the tanks and the island’s basalt rock, a porous material that comes from lava.
Being underground on the mountainside, the tanks are physically protected from aerial attacks and provide gravity-fed fuel to the U.S. Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard and Hawaii National Guard. They’re a major strategic asset to the military in the Pacific Ocean.
But how long were the Red Hill tanks really meant to last? With maintenance and parts replacement, the Navy says the answer is indefinitely.
“Most major infrastructure projects are not designed with an end of life in mind,” said Navy Public Affairs Officer Lydia Robertson. “When the interstate highway system was constructed or the Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge or any other major infrastructure project is built, designers in the past did not set a life expectancy on these types of projects.”
The Navy describes the 2014 leak as a “one-time extreme release” on its website and says it has implemented a variety of system improvements that would prevent such an event from recurring.
“The systems that we have in now and just what we do with (cleaning, inspecting and repairing), they have absolute assurance,” DeLao said.
However, a firm hired by the Navy to conduct a risk assessment disagreed.
According to ABS Consulting, there is a 27.6% chance of a leak of up to 30,000 gallons of fuel during any given year – an estimate EPA program manager Steven Linder said is meant to be “conservative.” It’s based on normal conditions without fire, flooding or earthquakes.
ABS also calculated a 34% chance of a release of over 120,000 gallons in the next 100 years. Chronic, undetected releases are expected to total 5,803 gallons per year, according to ABS.
But DeLao said he doesn’t believe those odds “in my heart and my mind.” The report’s predictions didn’t take into consideration improvements the military has implemented since 2017 and other future upgrades, he said.
Linder, the EPA official, acknowledged the statistical odds of future leaks are hard to calculate in a facility as unique as Red Hill. Overall, he said that with proper monitoring, he’s “fairly comfortable” saying fuel won’t make contact with the island’s drinking water supply.
Regardless, petroleum contamination has already been detected in the groundwater beneath the tanks. After the 2014 leak, there was a “spike in levels of hydrocarbons in soil vapor and groundwater,” according to the EPA – in other words, the ingredients of fuel.
DeLao is not convinced the Red Hill tanks are to blame.
“It’s not fuel,” he said. “It’s hydrocarbons, byproducts of something.”
Oahu’s drinking water is safe for now, but we can’t take that for granted, said Erwin Kawata, a program administrator for the Board of Water Supply. The tanks threaten the drinking water that 400,000 residents and visitors rely on, from Halawa to Hawaii Kai.
“It’s just a question of time when it’s just going to catastrophically fail,” he said. “We want to prevent something from happening before that failure occurs.”
The water utility is skeptical of the Navy’s proposed solution which includes no specific plan for removing the fuel and building a new facility away from the aquifer.
“A commitment or a goal without a plan is nothing but a dream,” Kawata said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Hawaii Department of Health are currently reviewing the Navy’s proposed path forward. The oversight is part of the Administrative Order of Consent, or AOC, the military was subject to after the 2014 leak. Members of the public were invited to weigh in on the Navy’s plan last fall, and testimony shows they’re not on board.
“The vast majority of the comments were not in favor of the Navy’s plan,” Linder said.
It’s a major issue for residents. The 2019 National Community Survey found that protecting Honolulu’s drinking water aquifers from Navy fuel storage leaks was essential or very important to 90% of respondents. They said it was among the most important issues facing the city, second only to homelessness.
The Honolulu City Council has repeatedly addressed the topic, most recently with a resolution in November 2019 supporting secondary containment or relocation. The Hawaii Legislature was considering a measure this year that would have required the relocation of the tanks. Senate Bill 2774 aimed to prohibit underground storage systems with 100,000-gallon capacities like the one at Red Hill starting in January 2028.
Dozens of residents and advocacy organizations submitted impassioned testimony in support, some asking for a deadline earlier than 2028.
“There is no tank upgrade option that provides as much security as the relocation of the Navy’s fuel away from drinking water resources,” wrote William Bekemeier, board member of Faith Action for Community Equity, a social justice advocacy nonprofit.
The bill was slated to be discussed at a meeting of the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health Committee chaired by Sen. Rosalyn Baker. However, two days before the hearing, the item was deleted from the agenda and the bill died. Baker did not respond to multiple phone and email messages requesting an explanation of why it was removed.
State Sen. Mike Gabbard, who chairs the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser at the time that he was “very disappointed.”
“Waiting until 2045 is much too late for the Navy to take real action to ensure that the aging Red Hill Fuel Tanks are double-walled or even moved to another location,” he said. “This bill is needed to put pressure on the Navy to make it a higher priority to protect our island’s precious water supply.”
It’s unclear when state and federal regulators will announce their response to the Navy’s proposal. Hawaii Health Department Director Bruce Anderson had been the point person from the state, Linder said, but he’s been leading the charge in Hawaii’s COVID-19 response. DOH did not respond to a request for comment.
“Things have been taking longer than we anticipated,” Linder said.
It’s unlikely the agencies will order the tanks to be decommissioned, according to Linder.
“Typically, the EPA is not in the business of saying: Shut down some sort of industrial facility because we don’t like where it is,” he said.
Instead, the agency usually implements requirements to protect the environment, he said. Sometimes those rules become too costly a burden for the entity being regulated, like in Manchester.
“If they decide that that’s not in their best interests, that they can achieve their goal through a different manner, they may choose to shut it down,” he said. “This is really kind of the Navy’s decision.”
Everyone at Civil Beat feels the weight of heightened responsibility. For the past several months our nonprofit newsroom has worked beyond our normal capacity to provide accurate information, push for accountability, amplify smart ideas and new voices, and double down on facts and context to write deeply reported local stories.
The truth is, our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.
Reader support keeps our small newsroom afloat. If you value the work of our journalists, please consider making a tax-deductible gift.