Hawaii’s congressional delegation is demanding answers from the U.S. Navy, saying that they are troubled by allegations that the Navy was “not appropriately forthcoming” with regulators, the public or elected officials earlier this year about a fuel leak into Pearl Harbor.

In a letter to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro on Tuesday, Senators Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and Congressmen Ed Case and Kai Kahele wrote that they are increasingly concerned about the safety of the Navy’s fuel operations in Hawaii.

“The people of Hawaii deserve better from the Navy,” they wrote.

Senator Brian Schatz in Honolulu Civil Beat office. 31 may 2017
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz joined with his colleagues in Congress to call for accountability regarding the Navy’s fuel operations. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The inquiry comes after Civil Beat reported last month that Navy officials had enough evidence as of January to confirm a pipeline connected to its Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility system was leaking fuel into Pearl Harbor near the Hotel Pier. However, the Department of Health wasn’t informed until May, according to a DOH letter.

In the meantime, officials worried internally about the optics of the fuel release, Navy emails show, and the Navy never mentioned the leak during a contested case hearing that could influence whether it receives a state permit it needs.

“The Navy’s decision not to publicly acknowledge the Hotel Pier fuel leak and explain what it is doing to prevent future leaks is inconsistent with the commitment past secretaries of the Navy have made to the people of Hawaii to remain transparent on all matters that could affect our environmental resources,” the letter states.

The federal lawmakers said they are also concerned about a May 6 incident in which a Red Hill pipe burst at the underground facility, spewing over 1,600 gallons of fuel into the surrounding concrete tunnel. Immediately after the incident, Navy Capt. Gordie Meyer announced that there was “no indication that fuel was released to the environment.”

But last week, the Navy said that in fact, it had been unable to capture 38 gallons of fuel and that it may have seeped into the nearby soil.  Soil vapor monitoring wells indicated elevated readings of volatile organic compounds, an ingredient of fuel, Navy reports stated.

Sen. Mazie Hirono and Rear Adm. John Fuller, commander of Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific, tour Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in 2015.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, pictured at Red Hill, signed on to the letter along with Schatz, Case and Kahele. Courtesy: U.S. Navy

“These recent incidents, including the manner in which the Navy has responded to them and its lack of transparency with the public, raise questions about the seriousness with which the Navy takes its responsibility to communicate clearly with the public about matters concerning health and safety,” they wrote.

The letter marks a significant shift in tone for Hawaii’s congressional delegation regarding the Navy’s fuel operations.

Previously, Case and Hirono have echoed the position of the military when asked about the facility’s potential removal: that it’s not a practical solution. Each of the members has supported facility upgrades and improvements but none of them have publicly put themselves at odds with the Navy – until now.

Their letter poses several questions to the Navy about the Pearl Harbor leak, including whether the Navy complied with all of its fuel release reporting requirements and whether it provided timely information to state regulators that may have been relevant during the contested case hearing.

They also requested a meeting sometime before Dec. 3 and asked that if any wrongdoing is uncovered, “that you will subsequently take appropriate accountability action.”

“The Navy must continue to improve the management and oversight of its operations, and provide timely and accurate information to state and federal regulators to ensure that its fuel activities do not pose a risk to the health and safety of the people of Hawaii,” they wrote.

Civil Beat contacted the Navy for comment but did not get an immediate response on Tuesday morning.

The inquiry by the congressional delegation adds to a chorus of concern by regulators, environmental advocates, state lawmakers and community members that seems to be growing louder ahead of Department of Health Director Libby Char’s decision on whether to issue the Navy’s permit.

Just in recent weeks, the DOH issued the Navy a $325,000 fine for environmental violations discovered last year and launched an investigation into whether the Navy failed to disclose pertinent information about its fuel facility; a group of legislators called for a separate investigation into the Hotel Pier leak; dozens of residents expressed their fears of a catastrophic leak at a public meeting; and just on Tuesday, a new group of advocates threatened to sue the Navy to force it to take swifter action to double-line its tanks.

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