The Hawaii Department of Health found several violations of state environmental rules at the U.S. Navy’s Red Hill underground fuel storage facility last year and has ordered the military to pay a $325,182 fine, the department announced on Wednesday.

The violations were discovered during a routine health department inspection from Sept. 28 through Oct. 9, 2020, the health department said in a press release. The inspection was part of enhanced environmental protection rules put in place in recent years, DOH said.

The Hawaii Department of Health is fining the Navy for several violations of environmental rules, it announced on Wednesday.
The Hawaii Department of Health is fining the Navy for several violations of environmental rules, it announced on Wednesday. U.S. Navy

“The state’s effort to strengthen regulations around inspection and monitoring was critical to identifying these violations and ensuring that underground storage tanks are maintained safely,” DOH Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathleen Ho said in a statement. “DOH will continue to enforce all regulations to protect Hawaiʻi residents and our environment.”

A notice of violation and order includes five counts, the DOH said, each with separate financial penalties. According to the notice, the Navy failed to:

  • Operate and maintain rust protection of metal components of tanks and piping system: $30,000.
  • Test tightness of repaired piping before return to service: $179,982.
  • Perform a yearly liquid tightness test on spill prevention equipment to prevent releases to the environment: $22,950.
  • Perform an adequate visual walkthrough inspection of hydrant pits, which are like miniature valve stations: $2,250.
  • Maintain adequate release detection for two double-walled underground storage tanks: $90,000.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has authorized the DOH to regulate underground storage tank systems in Hawaii since 2002, DOH said. In 2015, the EPA strengthened its regulations, and Hawaii adopted the EPA’s updates and additional requirements in 2018 to “make the state rules more environmentally protective,” DOH said.

The 2020 inspection was the first one DOH conducted under these new rules.

DOH is directing the Navy to come into compliance with the rules, but the department said the military may submit a request for a hearing and contest the violation order within 20 days.

In a statement on behalf of the Navy Wednesday afternoon, Public Affairs Officer Mike Andrews said that DOH didn’t note any “significant non-compliance issues” at the time of its inspection.

According to Andrews, DOH said it would issue a final report by Jan. 1, 2021, but a year after the inspections, the Navy still hasn’t received it.

“We just received the notice from DOH on Tuesday, with no prior communication on possible violations. We are reviewing the notice for context and our response,” he said.

“The Navy remains committed to maintaining safety in all operations of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility and to timely communication with State and Federal Regulators.”

In a statement, DOH spokeswoman Janice Okubo said it is not unusual for DOH to take a year to evaluate compliance for complex cases.

“The inspection process involves collecting information from many different sources and coordinating multiple site visits, a process compounded by both the complexity of the Red Hill system and the fact that it is a highly active military installation,” she said.

The notice of violation and order was issued after an “extensive and detailed inspection” of 20 Red Hill tanks, airport hydrant system and a complex system of piping, according to Okubo. The expansive system is unlike any other underground storage tank system under regulation by DOH, she said.

The Navy’s massive Red Hill fuel tanks are larger than Aloha Tower. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat

The violation comes at an unfortunate time for the Navy, which wants the DOH to approve its application for a permit to continue operating its fuel facility.

The permit process was delayed this month as the state launched an investigation into claims that the Navy failed to disclose information about its pipelines and corrosion history. DOH did not say on Wednesday whether that investigation is at all connected to the violation notice it issued.

The Sierra Club of Hawaii and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply are both contesting the Navy’s permit application. Both organizations have advocated for shutting down the facility because of its proximity to a major drinking water aquifer just 100 feet below the tanks and its history of leaks, including one 1,600-gallon release in May that likely leached into the soil. As an alternative to the facility’s closure, the Board of Water Supply has said it would be satisfied if the Navy installed a “tank within a tank” to reduce the odds of leaks.

On top of the contested case, the Navy has been under fire lately for taking months to share evidence with DOH that a pipeline was leaking into Pearl Harbor. DOH considers the pipeline part of the Red Hill facility, though the Navy has stated it is not “directly connected.” In the days before its contested case hearing with the Sierra Club and Board of Water Supply, a Navy official said in an email that he feared “activist organizations will use this to advance their anti-Red Hill narrative.”

Navy officials have repeatedly declined to comment on the extent to which political considerations factored into the timing of its disclosure to regulators.

The DOH said in its press release on Wednesday that the violation notice “should not be interpreted as a declaration by DOH of a position in any other matter.”

Members of the public will have an opportunity on Thursday to share their perspectives on the Red Hill fuel facility. The Hawaii Department of Health Fuel Tank Advisory Committee meeting will be held via Zoom from 9:00 a.m. to noon. Details are here.

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