The Navy defended its response to Red Hill’s water contamination during a lengthy administrative hearing held more than two weeks after petroleum was found in a drinking water well that serves 93,000 Navy customers not far from the agency’s underground jet fuel storage facility.

The 13-hour hearing Monday was held in response to the Hawaii Department of Health’s Dec. 6 emergency order directing the Navy to suspend operations at the fuel facility, treat the contaminated water and defuel 20 aging underground tanks that collectively hold an estimated 180 million gallons of jet fuel.

The Navy has suspended its operation of the Red Hill shaft and is in the process of treating the water, but has resisted calls to defuel the tanks, preferring to base that decision on its own investigation.

James Balocki, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy, testified Monday that the Navy’s response has been appropriate and timely. He declined to describe the situation as an emergency or a crisis.

Attorneys talk to the hearings officer nearly 13 hours into a hearing about water contamination at Red Hill. Screenshot/2021

“An urgent and compelling situation perhaps, not a crisis,” he said, later adding: “I’ve been in combat so I know what crises look like.”

He underscored how the Navy is providing bottled water to more than 4,000 Hawaii families and providing alternate housing to more than 3,440 families. He said he was unaware of people getting sick from the water contamination, although a Navy physician later testified the agency had seen 5,500 patients.

The Department of Health, Honolulu Board of Water Supply and Sierra Club participated in Monday’s hearing as well. All of them want the Navy to defuel its underground storage facility.

Balocki said that if the Navy’s investigation finds that defueling one or more tanks is necessary, the Navy will do so. Balocki said the underground fuel storage facility “provides a large preponderance of the war reserve fuel supply for the Indo-Pacific theater.”

“It is a singularly unique facility that doesn’t exist anywhere (else) under U.S. control,” he said.

City Water Still Safe

The situation has come under increasing scrutiny, with the Inspector General of the Pentagon announcing an investigation into the Red Hill water crisis on Monday and drawing praise from Hawaii’s congressional delegation.

“It is critical that the military restore safe drinking water immediately,” Hawaii’s congressional delegation said in a joint press release in praise of the investigation. “We also need answers.”

The city’s water system continues to be safe to drink, according to the Board of Water Supply. The agency announced Monday that the latest test results from Halawa Well, Moanalua Wells and Halawa Shaft showed no detectable petroleum products. The agency is still awaiting test results for Aiea Well.

Hawaii Deputy Attorney General Wade Hargrove questions witnesses from the Hawaii Department of Health. Screenshot/2021

Capt. James Meyer, commanding officer of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, described at Monday’s hearing how the Navy is spending millions of dollars to clean up the contaminated water and coordinating with state and federal agencies to do so. 

He agreed with the Honolulu Board of Water Supply that the situation is a crisis.

McGinnis acknowledged under cross examination that the long-term effects of many of the components of the petroleum found in the drinking water haven’t been studied “for obvious reasons.”

“You would not conduct research with the understanding that you would inflict harm,” he said, later stating that this is a public health crisis.

During the first several hours of Monday’s hearing, the state Department of Health and Board of Water Supply presented testimony about the status of the tanks and the history of leaks.

Health department officials reiterated their longstanding concerns about corroding tanks and the Navy’s methodology for estimating leaks.

Lene Ichinotsubo, chief of the solid and hazardous waste branch at the Department of Health, said the Navy hasn’t kept to its inspection and maintenance schedule, and noted one tank hasn’t been inspected within the last 40 years to determine where corrosion might be occurring.

Fenix Grange, the agency’s site discovery, assessment and remediation section supervisor, said the department did not receive July’s test result data until September and didn’t receive August’s test result data until October. She said the data could have been an early warning sign of potential contamination if received earlier.

Craig Jensen, attorney for the Navy, blamed the delay on delivering the test results to the health department on a California lab that was backed up.

A History Of Leaks

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply called David Norfleet, who oversees incident investigations at the risk management firm DNV GL – Oil & Gas, to testify as an expert witness about the risk of the Red Hill jet fuel facility leaking.

During his testimony, Norfleet referenced a risk assessment analysis that estimated there’s a 27% probability of having an acute or sudden release of between 1,000 and 30,000 gallons of fuel from the Red Hill facility each year.

Norfleet said that analysis was based on assumptions that underestimated pipeline frequency failure statistics and the history of leaks in the facility.

The risk assessment assumed there were 18 previous leaks in the facility. Norfleet said his review of the data and documentation of the Red Hill facility found a more conservative estimate would be 76 prior leaks, spilling an estimated 200,000 total gallons of jet fuel, including this year’s leaks.

“We believe these tanks are entering an end of life phase,” Norfleet said.

He criticized the Navy’s decision to attribute a previous leak to “human error” rather than a specific systems or processes failure, arguing that’s “a finding that goes against the vast majority of the industry,” and hearkens back to a 1980s mentality that the industry has moved beyond.

The Navy has been under an administrative order to upgrade the tanks since 2015 in the wake of a 2014 spill of 27,000 gallons of jet fuel.

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