The Hawaii Department of Health is delaying a decision on the U.S. Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility permit application as health officials investigate allegations that the Navy failed to disclose the full extent of its fuel pipeline network and the facility’s “corrosion history.” 

A contested case hearing, in which parties opposed the Navy’s permit, concluded earlier this year, and a hearing officer already made a recommendation to issue the permit. All entities were scheduled to submit final materials on Wednesday so that DOH Director Libby Char could make a decision.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Blake Whittle, fuel department director for the NAVSUP Fleet Logistics Center Pearl Harbor briefs officials on the Red Hill fuel tanks in 2019.
The Red Hill tanks sit 100 feet above an aquifer. Pictured: Navy Lt. Cmdr. Blake Whittle (third from the left) briefs officials inside of a tank at Red Hill in 2019. Courtesy: U.S. Navy

However, DOH’s Environmental Health Administration requested a 30-day delay on Oct. 14, according to an email Deputy Attorney General James Paige wrote to the parties in the case. 

Paige wants to reopen contested case proceedings so that the hearing officer can consider new evidence and potentially issue an updated recommendation to Char, he wrote.

The Environmental Health Administration “has received information and is investigating allegations that the full extent of the (underground storage tank) system infrastructure including pipelines may not have been disclosed as part of the application and proceedings, and that information regarding corrosion history may not have been disclosed,” Paige wrote. 

“We believe that a reopening of the proceedings is appropriate so that the Director may have the most complete and accurate information upon which to base her decision.”

In his email, Paige did not provide further details about the allegations, which have not been publicly reported before, and he did not identify the source of the claims. On Wednesday, his office said he was unavailable for comment.

The Sierra Club of Hawaii and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which contested the Navy’s permit, supported the DOH’s request for a delay, emails show. 

Despite objections from the Navy, Hearing Office Lou Chang granted Paige’s extension request on Friday. The new deadline is now Nov. 19.

Chang’s decision only changes the deadline by which the parties must file “exceptions” to his hearing officer report. Paige said in his Oct. 14 email that he planned to file a motion to reopen the contested case proceedings within two weeks. In a statement, DOH said on Wednesday that the motion has not been filed yet.

Navy spokeswoman Lydia Robertson declined to comment on the new allegations on Wednesday because the contested case process is ongoing.

Meanwhile, a dozen state lawmakers are calling for a separate investigation into whether the Navy misled regulators and the public earlier this year about a fuel release at Pearl Harbor.

Sierra Club Executive Director Wayne Tanaka and Hawaii Rep. Sonny Ganaden held a press conference on Oct. 19, 2021 to discuss the Navy's Red Hill fuel facility.
Sierra Club Executive Director Wayne Tanaka, Hawaii Rep. Sonny Ganaden and other lawmakers are calling for an investigation of the Pearl Harbor fuel release and the Navy’s response. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat 2021

That request comes after Civil Beat reported that the Navy had evidence in January – before and during the contested case proceedings – that one of its pipelines was leaking into Pearl Harbor. However, the Navy never mentioned the release during the contested case hearing and didn’t share the information with DOH until May. 

Approximately 7,700 gallons of fuel were recovered from the site from March 2020 through July 2021. 

Emails between Navy officials show they had “significant political concerns” about how an active leak could impact their permit approval. 

Navy spokespeople told Civil Beat earlier this month that the Navy reported the fuel release when it was first detected in March 2020 but that officials didn’t confirm the source of the problem until summer. 

The Navy has not responded to Civil Beat questions about whether political optics played into the timing of its notification to DOH that the pipeline had failed two leak detection tests in January. 

In an email on Wednesday, Robertson asserted that the Hotel Pier defuel line that leaked into Pearl Harbor is “not directly connected to the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.” 

That conflicts with the Department of Health’s assessment in a June 30 letter to the Navy, which stated that the pipeline test failures combined with the evidence of oil in the water is “confirmation that a release from the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility has occurred.”

On Wednesday however, Robertson said the defuel pipeline is not regulated by Hawaii’s administrative rules on underground storage tanks and that the Navy doesn’t consider the line part of its Red Hill permit application. 

“A very important issue here is that regardless of where this fuel release took place, we reported it immediately and continued to communicate and collaborate with DOH on our findings, on our tests, and on the results,” Robertson said.

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