A burst pipeline in the Navy’s Red Hill underground fuel facility spilled hundreds more gallons of jet fuel than initially reported in May, and there is evidence that some fuel leached into the soil, according to investigative reports the U.S. Navy released on Tuesday. 

The Navy places the primary blame on a civilian operator who allegedly failed to follow protocol regarding pipeline valves and has faced “appropriate action,” according to Navy Capt. Bert Hornyak. He declined to specify what that action was.

The Red Hill underground fuel facility is made up of massive tanks and a system of pipelines that carries fuel to Pearl Harbor.
The Red Hill underground fuel facility is made up of massive tanks and a system of pipelines that carries fuel to Pearl Harbor. Courtesy: U.S. Navy

The day after the spill on May 6, Navy officials estimated the release to be approximately 1,000 gallons and Capt. Gordie Meyer, the commanding officer for Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command, said that there was “no indication that fuel was released to the environment.” 

Incident investigators with Austin Brockenbrough & Associates, a mainland engineering firm hired by the Navy, concluded otherwise, the reports show. 

They estimate that 1,618 gallons of fuel were actually released into the facility’s lower access tunnel and that the Navy failed to capture 38 gallons of it. Soil vapor monitoring wells showed elevated readings of volatile organic compounds, an ingredient of fuel, after the incident. 

Meyer said the Navy made the best assessment it could in the hours after the incident but officials learned more later.

Navy Capt. James "Gordie" Meyer said earlier this year that there was no indication the fuel from the Red Hill spill had reached the environment. Further investigation showed it had.
Navy Capt. James “Gordie” Meyer said earlier this year that there was no indication the fuel from the Red Hill spill had reached the environment. Further investigation showed it had. U.S. Navy

“At the time, we believed we had captured it all,” Meyer said in an interview on Tuesday. 

Hornyak said that some of that missing fuel may have evaporated or soaked into the facility’s concrete. 

There was no increase of fuel detected in the groundwater monitoring wells near the spill, according to one of the reports. The Red Hill fuel facility sits 100 feet above a major aquifer that serves hundreds of thousands of residents from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai. 

The investigation found several other contributing factors to the spill, including an alarm system that did not sound, but the report states no other factor was as consequential as human error. 

“This release was not due to aged infrastructure, corrosion or equipment condition,” Meyer said.

Meyer said he couldn’t recall a similar incident in recent decades. 

Wayne Tanaka, executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, said the spill occurred just a few months after the Navy had assured his organization, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply and the state Department of Health during a contested case hearing that it could operate Red Hill safely.

At least 73 fuel release incidents have been documented at the Red Hill facility, according to the Board of Water Supply. That includes a leak of approximately 27,000 gallons from a tank in 2014.

Tanaka likened the Navy to a repeat drunk driver.

“How many times does someone have to drink and drive and crash their car into something before you take their license away?” said Tanaka, whose organization is advocating for Red Hill’s closure. “At some point, someone is going to get hurt.” 

The Navy’s reports recommend corrective action, including requiring employees to follow operations orders and undergo improved training, among other steps. 

“What’s important to note here is, while we never want to spill fuel, the Navy has the infrastructure in place to rapidly and effectively respond,” said Hornyak, the commanding officer at Naval Supply Systems Command Fleet Logistics Center Pearl Harbor. 

“Since the release, we have taken corrective actions to improve safety in all aspects of the Red Hill operation.” 

The Navy said it has shared copies of its reports with regulators.

“That open and transparent relationship with the regulators is essential,” Hornyak said. 

Meanwhile, the Navy is facing calls from state lawmakers and Sen. Mazie Hirono to explain an apparent lack of transparency on a separate fuel release: a leak from a pipeline into Pearl Harbor that began in March 2020.

The Navy had enough evidence in January of this year to conclude that the leak in the harbor was coming from a pipeline connected to the Red Hill facility, according to the Department of Health. 

But officials waited until May to share that evidence with DOH amid concerns that an active leak would reflect poorly on the Navy during its fight for a DOH permit, according to emails obtained by Civil Beat.

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Civil Beat has repeatedly asked the Navy to explain the extent to which “political considerations” played into the timing of its disclosure to DOH. 

On Tuesday, officials again declined to comment, citing the ongoing contested case surrounding its permit application. 

The permit process is ongoing but was recently delayed as the state investigates claims that the Navy failed to disclose the full extent of its fuel pipeline network and its “corrosion history.” The Navy has declined to comment on those allegations, but officials said the military has been transparent with regulators. 

Ultimately, DOH Director Libby Char will decide whether to issue the Navy the permit for its underground fuel storage system. 

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