Dozens of Oahu residents expressed alarm on Thursday about the U.S. Navy’s continued operation of its Red Hill underground fuel tanks and demanded the shutdown of the facility to protect urban Honolulu’s drinking water supply.
The remarks were shared at the biannual meeting of the Hawaii Department of Health’s Fuel Tank Advisory Committee, a group of local, state and federal officials that was formed in the aftermath of a 27,000-gallon spill in 2014 to study the Navy’s operations and provide recommendations to the Legislature.
“I want to be able to trust the Navy with the massive responsibility of properly maintaining these tanks, but I just can’t and that makes me really upset and sad,” resident and committee member Ashley Nishihara said.
The vast majority of the public testifiers expressed concern about the environmental threat and frustration that the Navy isn’t acting faster to protect the drinking water aquifer that sits 100 feet below its corroding World War II-era tanks.
With nearly 200 people tuned in via Zoom, Thursday’s meeting was better attended than usual, according to Marti Townsend, a former executive director of the Sierra Club who has attended numerous committee meetings. On the eve of a decision by the Department of Health about whether the Navy will be allowed to continue operating, Townsend said people appeared to be especially engaged.
Navy officials said that they can operate Red Hill in a way that continues its use as a strategic military asset and also protects human health and the environment.
“We can do both,” Navy Capt. Gordie Meyer said at Thursday’s meeting. “It’s not a matter of one or the other.”
Nishihara asked the Navy how it plans to mitigate a catastrophic oil spill.
The concrete encapsulating the lower access tunnel beneath the tanks would likely catch some of the fuel, according to Meyer, the commanding officer of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Hawaii.
“Additionally, there are ongoing discussions with regulators about possible ways that the Red Hill water shaft can be used as a capture zone to prevent that from migrating to any other areas once it’s impacted into the ground, if it ever does happen,” he said.
Meyer didn’t go into detail about how that would work.
“I don’t necessarily see a clear plan to deal with the catastrophic situation,” Jon Brodziak, a scientist who studies fisheries, said during public testimony. “We need those things outlined.”
Ernie Lau, the manager and chief engineer of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, said he is “extremely concerned.”
He asked Navy officials whether their groundwater studies show that a fuel leak from the tanks could migrate northwest toward the Halawa water shaft, one of the primary drinking water sources on Oahu.
Representatives from DOH and the EPA both said those results are inconclusive. But Meyer said no.
“In general, our models indicate that water generally flows down towards the coastline. And our models indicate that as long as we keep the capture zone at Red Hill, there will not be transfer or lateral movement of that groundwater that would affect the Halawa shaft,” he said.
Another concern: Lau said it takes six or seven months, far too long, for the Navy’s groundwater monitoring test results to be posted on the EPA’s website.
“That is like the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “That is the warning that if there is a fuel contaminant plume moving in the groundwater across Halawa Valley to our Halawa shaft, that is the information that we need to prepare.”
He asked that the groundwater testing be done monthly instead of quarterly and be publicly posted as soon as possible, but certainly within a month.
Melanie Lau, a committee member representing the Moanalua Valley Community Association, questioned why the Navy doesn’t seem to be considering alternative locations for its fuel facility. She said there are other, safer places for the Navy to store its fuel on the island.
Meyer responded that it’s not just the storage of fuel at issue but how Red Hill’s elevation allows the force of gravity to deliver fuel to the airport and Pearl Harbor, among other locations.
Also, having the tanks built into the bedrock of a mountain allows for a level of security that couldn’t be replicated, according to Meyer.
The Navy has faced scrutiny regarding Red Hill for years, but this year has been particularly intense.
Officials have been trying to obtain a DOH permit to continue operating its facility since 2019 – an effort opposed by the Sierra Club of Hawaii and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply. That conflict, called a contested case, came to a head this year with days of hearings in February.
In July, DOH’s Environmental Health Administration stated as part of the contested case hearing that it wasn’t convinced Red Hill could operate in a way that protects human health and the environment.
And the permitting process was recently stalled to allow DOH officials to investigate allegations that the Navy withheld information about its pipeline system and corrosion history.
Earlier this month, the military was facing calls for an investigation into whether it misled regulators and the public earlier this year about a pipeline leak into Pearl Harbor. Navy officials had enough evidence as of January to conclude the fuel was coming from a Red Hill pipeline, according to the DOH, but they didn’t share the information with regulators until May amid concerns that “activist organizations” would use it against them, emails obtained by Civil Beat showed.
Two additional developments occurred this week.
On Monday, the Navy acknowledged that a Red Hill pipeline spewed more fuel during a May incident than previously thought, and that not all of it was captured, raising concerns about environmental contamination. The Navy blamed the incident primarily on a civilian operator.
And on Wednesday, the DOH announced that it ordered the Navy to pay a $325,182 fine for several environmental violations at the Red Hill facility it identified during inspections last year.
As pressure on the military builds, residents have also asked what Hawaii’s congressional delegation is doing about the situation.
On Thursday, proxies for Senators Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono, as well as Rep. Ed Case, said their bosses favor upgrades and mitigation efforts but aren’t entertaining the idea of relocating the facility away from the aquifer.
Under an agreement with regulators signed a year after the 2014 spill, the Navy is supposed to install secondary containment – such as building tanks within the existing tanks – by 2037, or 2042 if an extension is granted.
Separately, state regulations put in place in 2018 require all underground fuel tanks in Hawaii to install some kind of secondary containment by 2038 or close.
However, the Navy is working on a longer timeline. Officials have stated they will either invent a double containment solution or decommission the tanks by 2045.
“We recognize these dates do not align, and they’re a topic of discussion among” the military and regulators, Gabriela Carvalho, the EPA’s Red Hill project coordinator, said at the meeting.
The Navy said it is currently working with researchers at the University of Hawaii and Gaztransport & Technigaz, an engineering firm that specializes in containment systems. The plan is to build a full-scale prototype of its solution in a non-operational Red Hill tank starting in Fall 2023, Meyer said.
“Following a successful prototype, we can then begin full-scale construction of the remaining tanks at Red Hill,” he said, noting that regulators would need to sign off on the plan.
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