Calling the Navy’s water contamination crisis a “humanitarian and environmental disaster” that puts the public in imminent peril, a Hawaii health department hearing officer on Monday recommended upholding the state’s emergency order to drain the Red Hill fuel tanks.
“The weight of the evidence establishes that the Red Hill Facility, as currently situated, is a metaphorical ticking timebomb located 100 feet above the most important aquifer on Hawaii’s most populous island,” DOH Hearings Officer David Day wrote in a proposed decision and order released on Monday.
“The Red Hill Facility has already damaged human health and the environment and, as currently situated, inevitably threatens to do so into the future. The Navy lacks the ability to control the substantial risks associated with the Red Hill Facility, as currently situated.”
In a statement, Rear Admiral Charlie Brown, U.S. Navy Chief of Information, said only: “We are aware of the proposed decision and have no further statement at this time.”
The hearing officer’s report comes after Gov. David Ige ordered the Navy on Dec. 6 to cease operations at Red Hill, install a water treatment facility and establish a plan to empty its World War II-era tanks.
Day’s recommendation supports Ige’s order and finds that the state has the legal authority to shut down Red Hill, regardless of the military’s desire to keep using it.
“The importance of the Red Hill Facility as fuel storage for the U.S. military has been considered, but it carries no substantial weight in this proceeding,” he wrote.
“In other words, when there is an emergency situation, the Legislature has made the policy decision to protect human lives and the environment over any functional utility of” underground storage tanks.
Along with testimony from the Navy and the public, Day considered the testimony of the Sierra Club of Hawaii and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which intervened in the case to demand Red Hill’s closure.
To become official, Day’s recommendation will need to be affirmed by Deputy Director of Health Marian Tsuji, according to David Henkin, an attorney for EarthJustice, an environmental group that also got involved in the case.
The Navy has until Wednesday at 5 p.m. to object to Day’s proposed order, Henkin said, and if the order is finalized, the Navy will have to start planning to empty its tanks.
The military has no immunity from the state’s power, according to Henkin.
“We’re glad that the message got through loud and clear to the hearing officer that we don’t need to wait until the next massive spill to act,” he said. “The time to act is now.”
Tsuji has up to 30 days, starting Monday or the day exceptions or objections are filed, to render a final decision, according to DOH.
Historical Releases Threatened Environment
The Red Hill fuel facility is made up of 20 massive fuel tanks, each the size of a building, and a network of pipelines that use the power of gravity to deliver fuel to Pearl Harbor. It sits 100 feet above Oahu’s federally designated sole-source groundwater aquifer, which supplies 77% of the drinking water for the entire island.
The hearing officer’s report notes that at least 76 leaks have occurred at Red Hill in the last 80 years, resulting in the release of nearly 200,000 gallons of fuel and a “constant threat” of more.
“More likely than not, these figures understate the true number of releases or the total volume of fuel actually released,” Day’s report states. “The history of releases, notwithstanding the Navy’s best efforts to prevent them, is damning.”
In January 2014, the Navy reported an estimated 27,000 gallons of fuel spilled from one of the tanks – an incident that actually began in December 2013 but went undetected for weeks, the report notes.
Following the 2014 leak, the Navy entered into an Administrative Order on Consent, or AOC – a type of improvement plan signed with regulators aimed at preventing a similar catastrophe.
However, several other fuel releases have been reported since.
One incident on Nov. 20 spilled an estimated 14,000 gallons of fuel and water from a fire suppression system drain line in a tunnel a quarter-mile from the tanks. Military families began complaining of a fuel smell in their water and related illnesses within days.
At the hearing last week, the Navy was unable to explain how its water system was contaminated, Day’s report notes, and he lambasted the Navy for its lack of answers.
“The Navy is not reliable with respect to monitoring whether leaks are occurring, determining how much fuel is released into the environment when leaks occur, and ascertaining threats,” he wrote.
“The fact that the Navy theorizes that the May 2021 Release and the November 2021 Release are connected evidences a lack of understanding of, and control over, the Red Hill Facility.”
He continued: “The Navy obviously does not want the Red Hill Facility to release fuel, and the Navy is trying to prevent releases. But despite everything the Navy is attempting to do, it is not enough: the evidence shows that the Red Hill Facility is simply too old, too poorly designed, too difficult to maintain, too difficult to inspect, along with being too large to realistically prevent future releases. It is not just one problem but a combination of many.”
Thousands Of Lives ‘Upended’
The testimony from military families who ingested contaminated water was “highly credible and perhaps the most important” factor in demonstrating that what occurred was a disaster, Day said in his report.
“Everything about this evidence spoke three words: disaster, crisis, emergency,” he wrote.
The contamination came without warning, was widespread, and was “not just mildly contaminated but poisoned with fuel,” he wrote. He cited residents’ reports that their homes smelled like gas stations and that adults, children and pets became seriously physically ill.
“People whose homes received contaminated water from the Navy’s water system had suffered stomachaches, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, skin rashes, sore throats, burning eyes, headaches, and difficulty breathing, including illnesses requiring emergency medical attention,” the report states.
Day also noted that residents have been forced to leave their homes, suffering mental and emotional anguish as their lives have been “totally upended.”
Water samples taken by the DOH showed levels of diesel in the Navy’s Red Hill shaft 350 times higher than state safety levels, the report notes. And this month, diesel levels at the Navy’s Aiea Halawa shaft were more than double the levels for safe drinking water.
“Continued operation of the Red Hill Facility, as it is currently configured and operated, poses an imminent threat to human health and safety or the environment,” Day wrote.
His report estimates that there is almost near certainty of a release between 1,000 to 30,000 gallons of fuel in the next decade.
“The State of Hawai‘i, DOH, BWS, and the public at large all have a strong interest in ensuring that the threats posed by the Red Hill Facility do not come to pass,” Day wrote.
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