Hawaii Gov. David Ige’s administration is ordering the U.S. Navy to formulate a plan to empty the fuel from its World War II-era Red Hill facility amid a water contamination crisis that sickened military families and threatens the drinking water source of urban Honolulu and beyond. 

The emergency order from the state health department requires the Navy to submit a plan within 30 days to “assess the operations and system integrity to safely defuel the Bulk Fuel Storage Tanks.” It also suspends fuel operations at Red Hill and requires the Navy to install a drinking water treatment system at the Red Hill well. 

“What we’re doing is protecting the environment and public health by asking – by ordering – the Navy to suspend its operations until corrective action can be taken,” said Kathleen Ho, the Hawaii Department of Health’s deputy director for environmental health who signed the order. 

Governor David Ige walks into ceremonial room before the press conference starts. Ige was announcing bills that he will veto.
Gov. David Ige and his health department are hoping the Navy cooperates with the administration’s order. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The plan must be written by a qualified, independent third-party approved by DOH, the governor’s office said. 

Upon DOH’s approval of the assessment, the Navy must then take “corrective actions” as quickly as possible, and within 30 days, the Navy must remove fuel from the storage tanks at the Red Hill facility.

Ige acknowledged that defueling would not happen “overnight,” but did not offer a clear timeline. DOH Director Libby Char said removing the fuel is risky in and of itself given that it would probably involve using some of the same pipes that have leaked. 

“That is a huge, huge deal,” she said. “It’s very easy to say: Just drain the tanks. But you need to make sure you do it safely and that you don’t create more problems by doing that than by just sitting tight.”

Any subsequent filling of the tanks would be subject to a determination by the Hawaii Department of Health that it is protective of human health and the environment, according to the order. 

With the order released Monday evening, the governor is putting himself at odds with the Navy and is potentially entering a debate about the extent to which the federal government has to answer to the state. It was an apparent turnaround for the governor, who earlier in the day had told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight program that he didn’t believe he had the power to shut Red Hill down.

“In terms of the operations of the Red Hill facility itself, it is on federal property for the most part, and certainly, I think that the state is a regulator and we can order certain actions,” he said. “But clearly the Navy and the federal government can decide whether they want to heed those orders or not.”

Later in the day, however, Ige said state law gave him the authority to issue the order.

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro apologized to the people affected by the Navy’s water contamination. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

On Monday afternoon, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said at a press conference that he was sorry that the Navy pumped petroleum-laced water into military communities, but had no immediate plans to permanently shut down the Red Hill fuel facility that is the likely source of the contamination.

Asked how he would respond if Ige demanded the permanent shutdown of the facility, Del Toro said he would take that as a request, not an order. 

Char declined to comment on whether the state is willing to enter into a legal battle with the military over the issue. Instead, Char said she hoped the parties could work together on a solution. 

“We all have the same goal, and that is that we have safe drinking water for everybody and we have a safe environment for our community,” she said.

David Kimo Frankel, an attorney for the Sierra Club of Hawaii, said on Monday morning that Ige does have the power to shut down Red Hill under state and federal law. He believes Ige should’ve done so immediately.

“The governor has a clear authority to order these tanks to shut down,” he said.

The order states that it becomes “final and enforceable” after a hearing that is scheduled for Tuesday at 1 p.m. with a DOH hearing officer via Zoom.

The announcement was the most decisive action the state has taken against the Navy over its Red Hill fuel operations. The facility, built in the 1940s, holds millions of gallons of fuel in massive tanks made of corroding steel and aging concrete that sit 100 feet above a drinking water aquifer.

Scrutiny of the facility really kicked off in 2014 after 27,000 gallons were released from one of the tanks. The Navy was required to enter into an oversight program with DOH and the EPA. But despite the heightened attention and mandated facility upgrades, the facility has continued to leak, including two incidents just this year. 

In May, 1,600 gallons of fuel were released from a burst pipeline into the facility’s lower access tunnel, the Navy said. Some of the fuel was not captured and is believed to have leaked into the environment. And just last month, 14,000 gallons of fuel and water spewed from a line at the halfway point between the tank facility and the Red Hill shaft that served as a drinking water source for 93,000 customers. One, or perhaps both, of those leaks is suspected to have caused the petroleum contamination in the Red Hill shaft. 

Navy officials revealed on Monday that they temporarily suspended operations at the Red Hill fuel facility on Nov. 28 amid complaints by residents in military housing about a fuel smell in their water and various health problems, including rashes, sores and nausea.

NEX Navy Exchange parking lot as military handles water distribution after fuel was found in the drinking water.
Families have been living with bottled and bagged water and some have relocated to hotels. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

But that suspension only means the fuel is not being pumped from the underground tanks at Red Hill to Pearl Harbor. The fuel remains in the tanks. 

Ige and Hawaii’s congressional delegation put out a statement on Sunday calling for the immediate suspension of the Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility – apparently unaware that the Navy had already done so a week before.

Navy officials acknowledged that there was evidence of a problem months ago, but they did not alert the public. Monitoring wells around the facility, which were installed for the purpose of early detection of fuel in the water, flagged possible contamination sometime between June and August, Rear Admiral Blake Converse said. 

“There were indications that there were total hydrocarbons in the groundwater monitoring wells in the vicinity of the Red Hill shaft,” Converse said, confirming reporting by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Officials said they reported it to the Hawaii Department of Health, but neither the Navy nor DOH put out a public alert. Converse said the hydrocarbon levels ultimately decreased to non-detectable levels. He said contaminants in the monitoring wells did not necessarily mean they were present in the drinking water being pumped from the Red Hill shaft.

Navy Says It Wants To Rebuild Trust

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday said it was up to DOH to decide what to do with the information it reported over the summer. 

“The Department of Health, in an oversight role, they need to take a look at these test results that we share with them as soon as possible, and then they really have the determining role on next steps,” he said.

Navy officials said public complaints – not its own monitoring wells – alerted them to the problem. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

In the days leading up to the flood of public complaints, though, Converse said the Navy had no reason to believe there was something wrong with the water.

At Monday’s press conference, Del Toro and other Navy officials answered questions from reporters, who were restricted to two questions each.

Del Toro said he hopes to rebuild trust with the community “one day at a time, one individual at a time, one situation at a time, by always doing the right thing.”

Ige deflected questions on Monday about whether he has personally felt a loss of trust in the military, but his order states the Navy has failed to meet its promises that it can operate Red Hill safely.

The facility does not provide necessary environmental protection to rapidly identify and remediate fuel leaks, the order states. It has also shown it cannot adequately identify and contain fuel spills nor treat water to ensure safe and clean drinking water for its customers, according to the order.

“The risk of any additional contaminants in the aquifer or lack of immediate action now may exacerbate the current situation and further jeopardize our aquifer system,” the order states.

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