Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Case’s amendment would only change inspection standards for Red Hill’s piping and other supporting infrastructure, not its fuel tanks.

A provision in the National Defense Authorization Act passed by the U.S. House on Thursday would require the Navy to adhere to “significantly enhanced” inspection standards for parts of its underground fuel facility at Red Hill, Rep. Ed Case’s office announced on Thursday. 

The floor amendment to the $768 billion spending plan was proposed by Case and co-sponsored by Rep. Kai Kahele, Case’s office said in a press release. 

Case said the proposal would strengthen inspection and safety standards for the World War II-era facility, which sits above Oahu’s drinking water aquifer. It would also require the Naval Facilities Engineering Command to conduct an updated inspection of the Red Hill facility to “confirm system integrity” and report options on security and maintenance improvements to Congress, the press release said.

The amendment, however, would not change inspections standards for the actual tanks at Red Hill. Despite a press release from Case’s office stating that the amendment would “strengthen inspection and safety standards for the Red Hill tanks,” the legislation specifically exempts the tanks from the inspection enhancements.

“The amendment deals strictly with piping and other supporting infrastructure and appurtenances – not the tanks themselves,” Nestor Garcia, Case’s communications director, wrote in an email on Friday.

The tanks have leaked several times over the years, including this year, heightening longstanding concerns that the island’s drinking water is at risk of jet fuel contamination. 

Congressman Ed Case and Attorney General Clare Connors attend a press conference at the main Post Office building located on Merchant Street.
Congressman Ed Case said Red Hill inspections are one of his funding priorities. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The U.S. Senate is expected to pass its own version of the bill, and differences between the two versions will be reconciled in the months ahead, according to CNN

Case’s amendment comes as Hawaii’s health department director contemplates a critical decision about the future of the tanks. 

Health Director Libby Char will determine in the coming weeks whether to issue the Navy a permit to continue operating the fuel facility.

Each fuel tank at Red Hill has a storage capacity of approximately 12.5 million gallons, according to the Navy. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat

Her ruling will be based in part on days of testimony in a contested case hearing earlier this year in which the Navy, Sierra Club and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply argued their cases. 

The Sierra Club and the Board of Water Supply have long maintained that the tanks pose an existential threat to the island’s drinking water supply

“We know that our water will be the safest when all the Red Hill tanks are moved to a safe location above ground,” the Sierra Club said in an email to supporters last week.

Meanwhile, the Navy continues to argue that it can operate safely

A Department of Health officer who presided over the contested case hearings recently issued his recommendation. He found that the Navy should be granted a five-year permit if it inspects and repairs all tanks by the end of 2024 and reports annually to the Department of Health on the status of its efforts. 

The Navy declined a recent interview request. However, in contested case hearing testimony, Navy officials said that only half of the 18 tanks in operation have been appropriately inspected in the last two decades, and it would take two years or more to repair and inspect only four tanks. 

In an emailed statement, Navy spokeswoman Lydia Robertson said the Navy is analyzing the hearing officers’ recommendation to determine its possible effects on operations.  

“Meanwhile, the Navy continues its significant investments, improvements and upgrades to the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, a vital and strategic asset for all our military throughout the Indo-Pacific Region and for disaster relief in Hawaii,” she said. 

“The Navy also continues to collaborate and share information and plans with the EPA and DOH and other stakeholders to prevent future releases of fuel from the Red Hill Facility, protect the groundwater resource in the vicinity of Red Hill, and safely operate and maintain the facility.” 

David Kimo Frankel, an attorney for the Sierra Club, is skeptical.

“The Navy has consistently failed to do what it has promised,” he said.

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