It was the end of January, just days before the U.S. Navy was set to appear in a hearing before the Hawaii Department of Health that would determine the fate of its Red Hill underground fuel facility.
A particularly inconvenient time for a leak.
And yet, an oil sheen in the water of Pearl Harbor had been growing since March 2020, and a nearby pipeline connected to the Red Hill facility had just failed a leak detection test.
In a Jan. 21 email, a Navy captain said he was worried about the optics.
So-called “historical” releases, such as from fuel-soaked soil near Pearl Harbor, were one thing. But an active leak from an in-use pipeline would reflect poorly on the Navy at a crucial moment.
“There are significant political concerns if this were to become an ‘active’ leak,” he wrote. “Activist organizations will use this to advance their anti-Red Hill narrative … at a sensitive time as the contested case hearing begins and (the) legislative season starts.”
Copies of emails and other documents were obtained by Civil Beat from a Navy employee who shared information on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
The records show that the Navy had enough evidence to conclude the leak was active as early as January according to state Department of Health standards, but officials waited months to report it to the department amid concerns it would hamper its ability to secure a state permit.
The Navy applied for the permit in 2019 seeking the state of Hawaii’s permission to continue operating its Red Hill fuel facility for another five years. The Sierra Club of Hawaii and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which believe the facility poses a threat to Oahu’s drinking water supply, contested the permit.
A contested case hearing ran from Feb. 1 through 6. Even though the pipeline that was leaking into Pearl Harbor is part of the Red Hill fuel facility and falls under its permit application, Navy officials never mentioned it.
By July, the Navy had recovered 7,700 gallons of fuel from the environment around Hotel Pier, near the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center.
“It’s an outrage. It makes my blood boil,” said Marti Townsend, the Sierra Club’s executive director.
“That they can’t be forthcoming with the public and the Department of Health about active leaks means that we really can’t trust them when it comes to making the most protective decision possible about the Red Hill fuel tanks. Their judgment is faulty.”
According to Navy spokesman Mike Andrews, who provided written responses to questions, the Navy did not confirm the source of the problem until July. That was several months after the conclusion of the contested case hearing.
Asked about Navy officials’ concerns about how an active leak might influence the contested case hearing, Andrews did not respond. Instead, he said the Navy has taken “all necessary steps to remediate this release.”
“This demonstrates the Navy’s commitment to stewardship and protecting the environment, while ensuring there is no risk to base residents and to the public,” he said.
Military officials have known about the leak since March 17, 2020, the Navy acknowledged to Hawaii Public Radio earlier this year. And the Navy reported it to DOH that day, Andrews said.
“At the time the release was reported, investigators thought that the release was from a historical plume located near the Hotel Pier site, and not from a leak in an active pipeline,” he said.
After 22 days, the release seemed to stop on its own but it resumed on June 2, Andrews said. The Navy reported it again to DOH.
In a December 2020 letter, the department required the Navy to locate and secure the oil release, remediate the spill and conduct additional pipeline testing.
In January, two leak detection tests yielded troubling results. On Jan. 20, a defuel line, used to collect fuel from other lines when they heat up, failed its test. Officials added some hardware to try to ensure the pipeline was airtight, according to the report, but on Jan. 23, the pipeline failed again.
The Department of Health would later state that two failed tests and an obvious oil sheen are sufficient evidence to confirm fuel was leaking from the Red Hill facility’s pipeline. But it wasn’t enough for the military, emails show.
In a Jan. 28 email, a Navy captain asserted that “no leak has been confirmed” and that a more advanced leak confirmation test would be done to “validate/invalidate the results on the ‘defuel’ line.” However, it was ultimately determined that subsequent testing could not occur because of conditions in the soil and water, Andrews said.
On Feb. 2, an oil spill cleanup company, which the Navy would later hire, conducted a site visit. The contractor, David “DC” Carter, a senior response manager for Pacific Environmental Corporation, or PENCO, almost immediately determined the leak was active, an email shows.
“Mr. DC Carter was firm in his belief that there is an active leak mixing with and pushing the older product out,” John Floyd, the deputy director of fuel and facility management at Naval Supply Systems Command, wrote after PENCO visited the site.
Carter did not respond to a request for comment. PENCO’s $2 million contract with the Navy included a nondisclosure clause that requires the contractor to refer all media requests to the military.
Despite the failed tests, the oil sheen and Carter’s assessment, the Navy still would not acknowledge that the Red Hill pipeline was the source of the leak.
On Feb. 3, Navy Commander Darrel Frame, the director of the Red Hill program for Naval Facilities Engineering Command Hawaii, testified under oath that – with the exception of a well-known 2014 release – fuel from the Red Hill facility had not contaminated the environment at any time since 1988.
“So generally, except for the 2014 event, are you proposing to state that there have been no releases of fuel that have gotten into the environment, again, other than perhaps the 2014 Tank 5 event?” Hearing Officer Lou Chang asked, according to the transcript.
“You know, sir, after looking at this pretty carefully, I’m reasonably confident saying that,” Frame said. “Not to say there couldn’t be some different interpretations, but those are my interpretations, yes, sir.”
As contested case hearings were happening, “a relatively significant amount” of fuel was being released into Pearl Harbor’s water every day, according to a Feb. 4 email a Navy captain wrote to colleagues. That Navy official, too, was concerned about how the release might impact the Red Hill permit.
“This release into the harbor is not only an environmental concern but also a concern as it relates to the Red Hill fuel system,” he wrote.
The entire fuel system Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam relies on – the Red Hill tanks and the pipelines that connect them to Pearl Harbor – are all under a Hawaii Department of Health operating permit, he said.
“We do not want the issues at the harbor to be conflated with the Red Hill tanks and strategic fuel storage,” he said.
“The pressure test failures combined with the existing evidence of a release to surface waters is confirmation that a release from the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility has occurred,” wrote Keith Kawaoka, DOH’s deputy director for environmental health.
In the letter, Kawaoka reminded Kott that the Navy is responsible for complying with state regulations and must notify DOH within seven days of a “confirmed release.”
Kawaoka retired earlier this year, DOH said. He declined to comment for this story.
It was only after Kawaoka’s June 30 letter that the Navy determined the source of the leak was the defuel line at Hotel Pier.
“Through a methodical approach (coordinated with DOH), in early summer 2021 it was determined that the source of the active release was both the historical plume and the defuel line,” Andrews said.
Much of the criticism about Red Hill has been focused on the World War II-era tanks themselves, which are located in the main facility located near the Halawa prison. The 20 tanks, each with a 12.5 million-gallon capacity, are made up of a quarter-inch thick steel liner encased in concrete that sit 100 feet above Oahu’s drinking water aquifer. These liners have been corroding.
In 2014, 27,000 gallons of fuel leaked from a tank. The Navy blamed the incident on human error by a contractor.
In May, Hawaii News Now reported approximately 1,000 gallons spewed from a distribution pipe at the same underground facility. The contested case hearing was reopened on July 7 to address the details of that spill.
However, concerns about the facility’s appendages, the system of pipelines that allow the force of gravity to deliver fuel to Pearl Harbor, have received relatively little attention until recently.
At Rep. Ed Case’s request, a provision was added to the National Defense Authorization Act to require the Navy to adhere to “significantly enhanced” inspection standards for the pipelines attached to its Red Hill fueling facility.
Whether the Navy will be allowed to continue operating the entire Red Hill facility – tanks, pipes and all – is an open question.
The Navy, Sierra Club and the Board of Water Supply are required to submit their final materials to the Department of Health by Oct. 20. In the weeks following, the parties will present their final oral arguments to the Department of Health, Townsend said.
In a statement, the Board of Water Supply declined to make an official available for an interview, citing the “ongoing nature of the contested case proceeding.”
Last month, Chang, the hearing officer, recommended issuing the Navy a permit for continued operations at Red Hill if it can meet certain inspection and repair requirements for its underground fuel tanks.
Townsend said it’s wrong that Chang wasn’t able to take the March 2020 leak into account and factor it into his recommendation to DOH Director Libby Char.
In the end, the decision on whether to issue the permit lies with Char.
“We obviously need to have a full investigation, and the parties will get an opportunity to make the case to the director both in writing and in oral arguments,” Townsend said.
“Evidence like this speaks to the unreliability of the Red Hill fuel facility and the unreliability, honestly, of the Navy officials who are managing it. And that speaks to the need for the Department of Health and the EPA to be much stronger and protective of the public’s health.”