A dozen Hawaii lawmakers are calling for an investigation into whether the U.S. Navy misled regulators and the public earlier this year about a fuel release into Pearl Harbor.
Earlier this month, Civil Beat reported that the Navy had enough evidence, per Hawaii Department of Health standards, to confirm in January that fuel was leaking from its Red Hill fuel facility pipeline into Pearl Harbor, according to a DOH letter.
However, officials didn’t share that documentation with the Hawaii Department of Health until May amid concerns it would interfere with their ability to obtain a permit, according to Navy records and emails shared with Civil Beat.
A contested case hearing, in which the Navy was battling opposition to its permit application, was underway at the time. Throughout the hearing, Navy officials never mentioned the fuel release.
At a press conference Tuesday, Hawaii Rep. Sonny Ganaden, who represents Pearl Harbor and Halawa, said people need answers.
“If the allegations are true, then Navy officials misled the public,” he said. “There might be consequences for that.”
In a statement, Navy spokeswoman Lydia Robertson said officials reported the presence of fuel at Pearl Harbor when it was first discovered in March 2020 and that the Navy was and is in frequent communication with regulators, including weekly meetings with DOH and the U.S. Coast Guard.
The lawmakers’ request for an investigation comes ahead of a key deadline in the Red Hill permitting process.
In September, a DOH hearing officer recommended issuing the permit if the Navy can meet certain inspection and repair requirements.
Final materials from the Navy, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply and the Sierra Club of Hawaii are due next month to the DOH, whose director Libby Char will decide whether to issue the military a permit.
The deadline was originally on Wednesday but was extended to Nov. 19.
In a letter to Navy Capt. Darren Guenther, chief of staff of Navy Region Hawaii, the legislators requested an independent investigation that covers the causes and extent of the fuel leak, the details of how it was reported to regulators, whether all the fuel was cleaned up and if any fines or enforcement actions were imposed on the Navy, the letter states.
Those who signed the letter include Ganaden, Hawaii Sen. Stanley Chang and 10 state representatives: Jeanné Kapela, Bert Kobayashi, Matthew LoPresti, Lisa Marten, Takashi Ohno, Amy Perruso, Jackson Sayama, Adrian Tam, David Tarnas and Tina Wildberger.
In his remarks on Tuesday, Ganaden said the health department needs additional information to make an informed decision about the Navy’s permit.
“The consequences for getting this wrong are dire,” Ganaden said.
The Red Hill fuel facility is made up of 20 massive tanks, built in the 1940s, that consist of thin steel liners surrounded by concrete shells and a system of pipelines that carry fuel to Pearl Harbor.
The tanks currently sit 100 feet above the Moanalua-Waimalu groundwater aquifer, which provides drinking water to 600,000 people from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai, according to the Sierra Club.
“If you are a person who drinks water in Honolulu, you should be concerned,” Ganaden said.
At the press conference, Wayne Tanaka, the executive director of the Sierra Club, said the stakes are high.
“Our very way of life, the legacy we leave for our children, for our grandchildren, depends on our willingness to hold the Navy to account and to ensure they take all steps necessary to protect the water supply,” he said.
Earlier this month, the Navy declined to comment on whether officials’ concerns about the optics of the Pearl Harbor leak played into the timing of its reporting to DOH. Asked for a response to legislators’ letter on Tuesday, the Navy again did not address how political considerations may have influenced its decision-making.
In remarks to the Wahiawa Neighborhood Board on Monday, Victor Flint, a representative of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, called Civil Beat’s reporting “shameful” and intent only on putting “the Navy in a bad light.”
He said the Navy pushes “fact, not fear.”
According to Flint, the Navy is committed to environmental stewardship, has been transparent in reporting to regulators and is continuing remediation of the fuel release near the Pearl Harbor Hotel Pier.
He also said the Navy uses oil booms to protect the environment.
“Navy’s priority is to ensure environmental safety to the base, residents and our public,” he said.
As the group of House Democrats pursues an investigation, Republican Rep. Bob McDermott is taking his concern about Red Hill a step further: He is advocating for the total closure of the existing facility.
McDermott, a Marine Corps veteran, said that while he is pro-military – “I bleed red, white and blue” – the Navy tanks must be relocated.
There have been 73 fuel releases since the facility’s inception, according to a memo the Board of Water Supply filed with DOH. While there is no evidence showing the fuel has reached the island’s drinking water, the status quo is “frightening,” McDermott said.
“It’s an engineering marvel, but it’s not sustainable anymore,” said McDermott, whose Ewa Beach district borders Pearl Harbor. “Someone’s got to do something.”
McDermott said he doesn’t blame the Navy for keeping the tanks where they are. He says it’s the responsibility of politicians, particularly Hawaii’s U.S. senators, to secure the funding for relocation.
However, in the absence of action by Hawaii’s representatives in Congress, McDermott is urging Gov. David Ige to declare a state of emergency to free up federal funds to keep Oahu’s drinking water safe. He sent a letter to the governor last week.
Ige’s office and the Department of Health declined to comment.
Civil Beat requested an interview with Sen. Brain Schatz last week but his office has not yet scheduled a meeting.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the chair of a subcommittee that provides oversight to the U.S. Navy, told the Civil Beat’s editorial board in July that the Hawaii Department of Health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Navy itself are the entities that should decide the facility’s future.
“We also should understand that these storage tanks are massive and they provide the fuel that is needed for our military to do their jobs here,” she said.
“And the removal of these tanks is not an easy matter either. But we should be very committed to making sure that the groundwater is not contaminated.”
A spokesman for Hawaii Rep. Ed Case, who represents the area served by the Moanalua-Waimalu groundwater aquifer, did not respond to interview requests.
Through a spokeswoman, Rep. Kai Kahele declined to be interviewed about Red Hill.
Asked about McDermott’s request to shut down Red Hill, Robertson said in her statement that Red Hill is “more vital today than ever.”
“It is part of the nation’s critical infrastructure – vital to national security, safety and defense,” she said. “Red Hill is also a vital fuel source for Hawaii during disasters and emergencies.”
She continued, “The Defense Logistics Agency and the Navy share the same goals with the EPA and the State of Hawaii: Protect our national security, our environment and our drinking water. The Navy continues to work closely with regulators and stakeholders on the operations, maintenance and other aspects of the Red Hill facility.”
Meanwhile, the Navy has already replaced other World War II-era underground fuel tanks in Point Loma, California, and a similar project is underway in Washington state, McDermott noted in his letter.
“Why can’t we do it here?” he asked.
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