As the Hawaii Department of Health weighs whether to grant the U.S. Navy a permit for its Red Hill fuel facility, some community members are demanding the facility’s closure.

Hawaii’s congressional delegation is not among them. 

Civil Beat requested interviews with Hawaii’s two senators and two congressmen to discuss the future of the corroding tanks, which threaten a major Oahu aquifer. 

Sen. Mazie Hirono and Rear Adm. John Fuller, commander of Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific, tour Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in 2015.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, pictured here during a tour of the Red Hill facility in 2015, supports the Navy’s plan to keep the tanks in place with monitoring and inspections. Courtesy: U.S. Navy

Only U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono agreed to an interview. On Wednesday, she said the tanks should stay where they are with oversight that ensures Honolulu’s drinking water does not get contaminated. 

“Talking about moving it is no simple matter. It is a massive facility,” she said. “Where is the factual evidence regarding that these tanks should be closed? I would like to have a factual argument.” 

The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility, which sits 100 feet above an aquifer that provides drinking water to hundreds of thousands of residents from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai, has been under increasing scrutiny in recent years.  

At least 73 fuel release incidents have been documented at the facility, including a 2014 leak of approximately 27,000 gallons from a tank and a release of about 1,000 gallons in May of this year, according to the Board of Water SupplyWhile there is no evidence that fuel has reached Honolulu’s drinking water, traces of petroleum have been detected in the groundwater and a Navy consultant calculated there is a 27% probability of up to 30,000 gallons being released each year. 

Earlier this year, the Hawaii Department of Health’s Environmental Health Administration determined that the Navy has failed to demonstrate its facility can operate in a way that protects human health and the environment. 

A contested case process, in which the BWS and Sierra Club of Hawaii oppose the Navy’s permit application, is underway but has been delayed amid allegations that the Navy withheld information about its pipelines and corrosion history from the state. The Navy has declined to comment on those allegations. 

Left to Right: Capt. Ken Epps, Capt. Dean Tufts, U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, Hawaii Sen. Donna Kim, State of Hawaii Rep. Linda Ichiyama, Rear Adm. John Fuller, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Lovgren toured the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility
The office of U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, pictured right and center during a Red Hill tour, did not respond to a request for comment. Courtesy: U.S. Navy

Meanwhile, the Navy says it has invested $750 million in system enhancements over the last decade and is “fully dedicated to working collaboratively and transparently,” with regulators to keep drinking water and the environment safe. 

The office of Rep. Ed Case, who represents hundreds of thousands of residents whose drinking water could be affected in the case of a large-scale leak, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Neither did a representative for Sen. Brian Schatz, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and its subcommittees on both defense and military construction.

Rep. Kai Kahele, a freshman congressman and National Guardsman whose district covers the northern half of Oahu and the rest of the state, declined to comment through his spokeswoman. 

The silence is “mind boggling,” according to David Kimo Frankel, an attorney for the Sierra Club of Hawaii, which is calling for the shutdown of Red Hill.

“It is shocking and inexplicable that the congressional delegation is not up in arms about this,” he said. 

While the representatives have not called for a shutdown of the facility, they have advocated for improvements and increased regulation.

In September, the U.S. House passed the National Defense Authorization Act including a provision proposed by Case and backed by Kahele that would create “significantly enhanced” inspection standards for Red Hill pipelines and related infrastructure. 

And in June 2020, the House Appropriations Committee approved $5 million for research “to ensure the safety of the Red Hill underground fuel storage tanks while a permanent solution for the facility is determined,” Case’s office said in a press release.

In the Senate, Schatz supported that funding effort, which ultimately passed, his office said in a news release last year.

Schatz also passed Senate legislation in 2017, backed by Hirono, that requires the Department of Defense to dedicate funding for upgrades that “improve Red Hill and protect Oahu’s drinking water from future fuel leaks,” according to his office. However, he hasn’t voiced support for the tanks’ removal. In 2015, after the military and regulators signed an agreement to fix the tanks within 20 years, Schatz called it a “pragmatic step forward to protect Oahu’s drinking water.”

In June, Case told the Sierra Club that he doesn’t see the removal of the tanks as an option. 

“I don’t think that simply saying to the Navy take those tanks out of Red Hill now is a practical solution, to be very straight with you,” he said.

Hirono, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the chair of a subcommittee that provides oversight to the U.S. Navy, said the site requires monitoring and inspections.

“We need to make sure that our groundwater is safe,” she said. “So I have been asking the Navy, everybody, from the secretary on down, about the concerns that I have about how to make sure that the Navy is doing everything they can. And so I’m dealing with facts here.”

It’s very important that the Navy be transparent about its fuel operations and any releases, Hirono said.

Rep. Ed Case visited Marine Corps Base Hawaii in 2019
Rep. Ed Case’s office did not respond to multiple interview requests. Courtesy: U.S. Navy

She said that includes sharing information about a fuel release at Pearl Harbor that started in March 2020. In January, a nearby pipeline failed two back-to-back leak detection tests, leading the Department of Health to later conclude there had been a leak from the Red Hill fuel facility. But DOH didn’t make that determination until the summer. 

The Navy didn’t share the test results with DOH until May, according to a DOH letter. 

The military has not cited a reason for the delay, but in emails earlier this year, Navy officials discussed how the leak could reflect poorly on the Navy during a contested case hearing on its permit application. 

This week, a dozen state legislators called for an investigation into whether the Navy misled regulators and the public about the pipeline leak. In response, the Navy said it has been in frequent contact with regulators and said the pipeline is not “directly connected” to Red Hill. 

Hirono said an independent investigation is warranted to clear up the “conflicting information.” 

“I think the biggest challenge for them is building community trust in what they’re doing and maintaining this massive installation,” she said. “So they can start by informing the public as well as the parties to any cases that they’re involved in as to any releases, any leaks, etc.” 

As to who should investigate, Hirono didn’t say. 

“I’m going to assess what is the best way forward and who should do the investigation, and I will let you know,” she said. 

During World War II, the Navy built underground fuel storage tanks on the U.S. mainland as well as in Hawaii but has taken steps on the continent to relocate facilities above ground

After a major oil spill in 2006, the Navy replaced a 42-million gallon facility in Point Loma, California. Another project just broke ground this year in Washington state to close tanks with a 79-million gallon fuel capacity at Naval Base Kitsap and rebuild above-ground tanks. 

At a press conference in July, Washington Rep. Derek Killmer called the project a “win” for the environment and for taxpayers, the Kitsap Daily News reported.  

“Rather than having 79-year-old tanks that have to be inspected, cleaned and repaired once every 10 years at a cost of $2 million to $3 million per tank, we will be making a smart investment that pencils better for taxpayers,” he said. 

Hirono said the old facilities in California and Washington are different from Red Hill, which is made up of 20 massive tanks with a total fuel capacity of up to 250 million gallons.  

“The amount of fuel in those tanks is just a small percentage of what’s at Red Hill,” she said. 

Hirono compared Hawaii’s tanks to the Hoover Dam, a concrete structure built in the Colorado River during the Great Depression that is now a National Historic Landmark. 

Rep Cynthia Thielen speaks in support of Hemp during floor session.
Cynthia Thielen, who represented the Kailua area for 30 years in the state legislature, said the Red Hill tanks should be decommissioned. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Retired state representative Cynthia Thielen said Red Hill’s construction is indeed an incredible engineering feat, but it has a lifespan like anything else. 

Thielen asked the Navy at a public meeting in 2016 when were officials going to ask for federal funding to study decommissioning the tanks – a question that was met with applause from the room, a video shows. A Navy official responded that, “I don’t think we have that in the queue now.” 

It was as if they had never even thought of that,” Thielen said. “Our congressional delegation should be working together with the Navy to get that funding for the planning, and they should be doing that right away.” 

State Rep. Bob McDermott has also called on the congressional delegation to allocate funds for Red Hill’s closure and relocation. He said more of his Hawaii House colleagues probably agree with him but hesitate to say so. 

“I think they’re afraid of being labeled anti-military,” he said. 

Thielen, who decades ago fought to force the Navy to stop bombing Kahoolawe, said her opposition to the military never became a political liability for her. 

“Because it was the right thing to do,” she said. “And that’s what I would say to Ed, to Mazie, to Kai and to Brian. It’s the right thing to do.” 

For now, the Navy plans to keep using the Red Hill facility and pursue so-called “secondary containment,” a proposed solution the Navy has been studying, according to the Navy’s report to the Hawaii Fuel Tank Advisory Committee in May.

Hirono said she’s comfortable with the Navy’s plan as long as it continues monitoring its work and is open with the public. 

“Their commitment to making sure that they are not contaminating groundwater is there, but they create mistrust if they do not tell the community the information that they should be giving us,” she said. “That includes me, by the way.” 

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