A whistleblower told the Hawaii Department of Health in September that Navy officials provided false testimony and withheld information about corrosion at its Red Hill fuel facility, according to a memo filed by the DOH Environmental Health Administration on Tuesday.

In light of that information, the division asked Health Director Libby Char to reopen a legal proceeding that will help determine the fate of the beleaguered facility.

A contested case hearing officer already recommended that Char issue an operating permit, under certain conditions, but EHA’s memo raised the possibility that he could change his recommendation.

Capt. Eric Morgan, Commanding Officer of Naval Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP) Fleet Logistics Center (FLC) Pearl Harbor, briefed Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility during a September 2018 visit.
The Navy has been trying for over two years to obtain a Department of Health permit and has hit numerous obstacles. U.S. Navy

“The integrity of the process has been called into question and it is important to make sure that the Hearings Officer has the most complete and accurate information available to make a recommendation, and that the Director has the most complete and accurate information available in order for her to issue a decision on the permit,” the memo said.

“It is also important for these allegations to be addressed so that the public can have confidence in the DOH’s permitting and contested case processes,” it added.

The Red Hill facility, built in the early 1940s during World War II, is made up of 20 gigantic underground fuel tanks, each one larger than Aloha Tower, and a network of pipelines that deliver fuel to Pearl Harbor, among other places.

Numerous fuel leaks during the decades since its installation have caused serious concern among residents and environmental advocates who fear the drinking water aquifer beneath the tanks could become poisoned by fuel.

The contested case hearing was initiated after the Sierra Club of Hawaii and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply objected to the Navy’s 2019 application for an operating permit. Hearings were held in early February and were reopened in July following a fuel release from a burst pipe in one of the facility’s underground tunnels.

The hearing officer delivered his proposed decision and order on Sept. 10.

On Sept. 16, a naval officer informed the DOH Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response office that “inaccurate testimony had been submitted, and important information had been wrongfully withheld by the Navy in the contested case proceedings.”

The memo did not name the naval officer but stated that the person is familiar with the Red Hill facility, including “corrosion and leak detection issues, historical data, and the full extent of the Red Hill Facility including tanks and piping that are subject to permitting and regulation by the State.”

Navy public affairs officer Mike Andrews said Tuesday that the Navy “does not comment on matters in litigation.”

The Navy whistleblower was interviewed by the Hawaii Attorney General’s office in October, the memo stated.

The person reported that the full extent of the underground storage tank system infrastructure, including pipelines, was not disclosed to the state on the Navy’s permit application, and that information regarding corrosion history was improperly withheld, according to the memo.

“This resulted in material information being unavailable for the proceedings and inaccurate testimony being provided by a Navy witness during the contested case,” the memo said.

Among the Red Hill pipelines that were not disclosed on the Navy’s permit application was a defuel line, according to the memo. The memo said the DOH first learned of the line when the Navy shared a schematic with the department on May 25. That same month, DOH sent a letter to the Navy about a defuel line leak from the Red Hill facility into Pearl Harbor. The memo didn’t say whether the defuel line it referred to is the same one that leaked into the Harbor and has since sparked calls for investigations.

The EHA argued in its memo that the DOH needs “accurate and complete” information on the full extent of the Red Hill system, which the state is empowered to regulate.

Regarding corrosion, the EHA said the naval officer reported “historical records of corrosion issues, including holes in tanks, that are being hidden from the regulators.”

“Corrosion is a key issue in these proceedings and it is necessary for both the hearings officer and the Director to have the most accurate information on the history of corrosion at the Red Hill Facility in order for a fully informed recommendation and decision on the permit to be made,” the memo states.

Char has the authority to remand the case back to the hearing officer for more deliberation, and she should do so, the EHA memo stated.

The EHA asked the hearing officer last month to delay a contested case deadline so it could investigate these claims. The new deadline for contested case parties to file final paperwork was then set to Nov. 19.

The EHA memo comes amid increasing criticism of the Navy this year from lawmakers, environmental advocates and residents, many of whom are calling for the Navy to quickly double-line its tanks or relocate them somewhere safer aboveground.

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