U.S. military bases in Hawaii dumped more than half a million pounds of nitrate compounds — toxic chemicals commonly found in wastewater treatment plants, fertilizers and explosives — into the ocean in 2019, newly released federal data shows.
Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam led with the release of 540,000 pounds, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s latest Toxic Release Inventory. The rest — more than 86,000 pounds — came from the U.S. Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe Bay.
The inventory, released last week, tracks the permitted chemical waste activities of nearly 22,000 facilities across the country. That includes 31 Hawaii facilities that meet EPA’s threshold for the amounts of chemicals released. Hawaii’s seven major wastewater plants, which also discharge waste into the ocean, are not included.
The 540,000-pound figure puts the Navy-Air Force joint base in Pearl Harbor at No. 3 on the list of U.S. military facilities regulated by the EPA that dumped the most nitrate compounds in 2019. Numbers 1 and 2 were U.S. Army ammunition plants in Radford, Virginia, and Kingsport, Tennessee.
The base has federal permits to dump the waste and has not been cited by the EPA for any violations in recent years, but environmental officials said they hoped the disclosure of the information would promote efforts to reduce the discharge.
In the past five years, the nitrate compounds have been going to Mamala Bay, near the Honolulu airport, though data shows in the early 2000s, the waste was discarded into Pearl Harbor.
While military bases released the most toxic chemicals into the ocean in Hawaii, the biggest releases overall came from power plants. Hawaiian Electric Co.’s Kahe generating station alone discarded nearly 600,000 pounds of waste — most of it into the air. About 430,000 pounds of it were sulfuric acid. Pearl Harbor-Hickam came in second overall in Hawaii.
“In 2019, our TRI numbers reflected the demand for electricity due to warmer and more humid than average weather that year as well as the loss of some renewable generation capacity,” Hawaiian Electric spokesman Peter Rosegg said in an email.
Electrical utilities, as well as metal and mining industries, are typically among the largest producers of chemical waste, said David Wampler, a data solutions manager in the EPA’s Region 9 office, which includes Hawaii.
Pearl Harbor-Hickam, a sprawling base in central Oahu, is home to nearly 67,000 active duty personnel, civilian workers and family members. It has a large-scale wastewater treatment plant that covers 11.61 acres of land and can process 7.5 million gallons a day, according to a Navy fact sheet.
“Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and the Navy are committed to tracking, accounting for and reducing hazardous materials as good stewards of Hawaii’s environment,” Navy Region Hawaii spokeswoman Lydia Robertson said in an email. “We continue to focus on safe operations and work closely with regulatory agencies to remain transparent in our operations and communication.”
Experts on base who are familiar with the matter and could answer specific questions about the report were unavailable for interviews Friday, she said.
EPA’s analysis says nitrate compounds comprised 89% of the toxic chemicals released into the water in 2019 across the U.S. They’re “commonly formed as part of facilities’ on-site wastewater treatment processes,” the agency says on its website. In Hawaii, they accounted for 100% of waste released into water.
The nitrate compounds discarded by the Marine Corps base in Kaneohe Bay, which has a permit to discharge chemical waste, are related to that base’s wastewater treatment facility, according to Capt. Eric Abrams, its spokesman.
“It is disposed of as dried sludge in our landfill, or by effluent discharge three miles off-shore through a common outfall shared with City and County of Honolulu’s Kailua Regional Waste Water Treatment Plant,” he said in an emailed statement.
Schofield Barracks, which also has a wastewater treatment facility, has not released any nitrate compounds since 2004, according to EPA data.
The Marine Corps Base also released more than 170,000 pounds of naphthalene, which Abrams said comes from jet fuel combustion in aircraft engines, into the air in 2019, EPA data shows.
“Marine Corps Base Hawaii is dedicated to preserving the environment and recognizes the important role good stewardship plays in our future success,” he said. “Our Environmental Compliance and Protection Department works diligently to protect the natural resources with which we have been entrusted.”
Both Pearl Harbor-Hickam and Marine Corps Base Hawaii’s facility records show no violations or enforcement actions in recent years.
That doesn’t mean facilities shouldn’t strive to reduce toxic chemical waste, Wampler said. One of the messages that the Toxic Release Inventory is trying to send by collecting this type of data and making it publicly accessible is to pressure facilities and companies to reduce waste, he added.
“I think the simple fact that this information is available does drive companies toward reduction,” he said. “So they are thinking about where their waste is being generated.”
Nitrate compounds are potentially explosive and can “release a destructive amount of pressure, gas, or heat when subjected to certain conditions, such as high temperatures or sources of ignition,” according to a University of California Center for Laboratory Safety study.
They dissolve in water, which is how they’re mainly used, the study says. While they’re not classified as carcinogenic by the EPA, there are health risks associated with the chemicals should anyone come in contact with them, whether by inhalation, ingestion or absorption.
“The biggest risk is associated with drinking water,” said Wampler.
Too much nitrate in a human body could affect how the blood carries oxygen, health studies show.
The chemicals also pose a risk to one of Hawaii’s most treasured resources — the ocean, said Rick Bennett, a microbiologist with the Kona Coast Waterkeeper, an environmental nonprofit.
Too much nitrate already ends up in the ocean because military bases aren’t alone in releasing them there, and the heightened levels result in the “overnourishment” of the water system, Bennett said.
That means things like algae and phytoplankton proliferate, he said, making the water murky — something the EPA also warns of. Sunlight can’t easily penetrate murky water and kill microbes and pathogens, which can then affect the health of people who go in the water.
“If we continue to use the ocean as a dump, the crystal clear waters that I knew will turn brown and green,” Bennett said. “Brown and green is not healthy for our islands, for our people or our economy.”
Hawaii, as a state, released far less toxic chemicals than other states in 2019, EPA data shows, though it discarded slightly more than it did in 2018.
The statewide total went from 4.07 million pounds that year to 4.08 million in 2019.
“The amounts (of toxic chemical release) are very small with respect to other states even within our region,” Wampler said. The Pacific Southwest region includes California, Nevada, Arizona and other Pacific islands.
The minimal increase did not impact Hawaii’s overall ranking of 44th out of 56 states and territories in toxic chemical disposals, with the No. 1 state — Alaska — having dumped more than 850 million pounds.
Nationally, there has been an increase in documented efforts by facilities to reduce sources of toxic chemical waste, Wampler said.
The federal agency identified about 3,300 new efforts in 2019, he said. That includes five from Hawaii, four of which are by Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
The base has introduced measures to reduce certain chemicals, such as the carcinogenic chemical ethylbenzene, more than 5,000 pounds of which were discarded in 2019, and N-Butyl Alcohol.
The 2019 data also does not reflect the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wampler said. During that time, many companies halted or slowed down production.
Less production means less waste, he said.
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