Although the Navy has agreed to drain the Red Hill fuel facility following the contamination of its water supply in Honolulu, it won’t actually be removing the fuel in the immediate future. 

A process of assessment, government review and structural repairs will come first. And even then, according to a state order, the Navy could potentially use the World War II-era facility in the future. On Wednesday, dozens of community members told lawmakers they want the Navy’s fuel removed quickly and permanently. 

“The public and the land should be protected forever,” Carolyn Weygan-Hildebrand said in written testimony to the Honolulu City Council. 

Oahu Water Protectors demonstrate in opposition to the Red Hill Bulk fuel storage facility at the Capitol.
Clean water advocates on Oahu have demanded the permanent shutdown of the Navy’s Red Hill fuel storage facility. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Early last month, the Hawaii Department of Health ordered the Navy to remove the fuel from the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility after hundreds of military families were sickened by contaminated water following two leaks.

The facility, which includes 20 massive, underground tanks and a network of pipelines, sits 100 feet above a drinking water aquifer that is shared by the Navy and the city of Honolulu via separate wells.

The state’s order called on the Navy to submit by Feb. 2 a “work plan and implementation schedule” that is aimed at assessing the facility’s operations and system integrity. That assessment, done by a third-party contractor, is scheduled to be completed by April 30 and will then be submitted to the health department, according to David Kimo Frankel, an attorney for the Sierra Club of Hawaii who participated in a call with the Navy on Monday. 

After DOH approves the assessment, the Navy is required to make repairs and changes. Those improvements are ordered to occur “expeditiously,” but DOH did not mandate a specific deadline in its order. 

Once those repairs are complete, a 30-day clock starts for the Navy to empty the fuel. 

“We are not close to defueling,” Frankel said. 

The Navy, which has suspended operations at Red Hill, and the state health department did not respond to questions about the timeline for removing the fuel.

If and when the Navy defuels its tanks, the state’s order still leaves room for the Navy to fill them back up. DOH will make a determination on refueling that is “protective of human health and the environment,” according to the order. 

Gov. David Ige said this week that he isn’t seeking to permanently decommission the Red Hill facility. He said he wants to see the results of the independent assessment mandated by the DOH order. He also noted that the military presence in Hawaii is “an important part of our economy.”

The governor’s stance put him at odds with some state lawmakers who aren’t counting on the health department’s order to keep Oahu’s drinking water safe.

Lawmakers toured the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility on Jan. 6, 2022. Pictured: Sen. Kurt Fevella, Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson, Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, City Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga and Sen. Laura Acasio.
State lawmakers toured the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility on Jan. 6. Courtesy: State Senate/2022

On Wednesday, Hawaii senators discussed Senate Bill 2172, which would prohibit the health department from permitting underground fuel storage tanks within a half-mile of an aquifer.

Senate Health Committee Chair Jarrett Keohokalole said 270 individuals and organizations testified in support of the bill.

At the Senate committee meeting, Ann Wright, an Army veteran and former diplomat who has advocated for the decommissioning of the tanks, urged lawmakers to take action. She said the state’s order will allow the Navy to keep its fuel in place for months, if not longer.  

“Don’t let the Navy slow-roll us on this,” she told the senators. 

SB 2172, with some amendments, passed unanimously in both the Senate health committee and the Senate committee on agriculture and environment.

Also Wednesday, the Honolulu City Council unanimously advanced Bill 48, which would require operators of large underground fuel tanks to obtain a city permit. The city would only issue a permit if the decision is “protective of human health and the environment,” the bill states. 

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply has said the civilian water supply is currently safe but has warned that the contamination could spread.

The bill would also allow the city to impose fines and fees on fuel operators and conduct inspections at fuel facilities, and it would require the permittee to disclose modifications made to the facility. 

Councilwoman Andria Tupola said action is needed to “avoid any impending threat to our water and our land.”

“The people of Oahu have been relying on us, waiting on us, hoping that we would do something,” she said. “Though we may disagree on other matters of public policy, on this single issue, we are all unified in heart and mind. We will not be moved.”

The city bill received testimony from dozens of residents who either support the legislation or said it doesn’t go far enough to shut down Red Hill permanently. 

Red Hill

“I have a 10-month old baby and I do not want to make him drink or bathe in contaminated water, which is what many military families have done unknowingly because of the Navy’s negligence,” resident Cindy Nawilis said in written testimony.  “Let’s not sit idle and wait for the same thing to happen to even more families on Oahu.” 

Some testifiers want the Honolulu Board of Water Supply to be the permitting authority for Red Hill. 

“The Department of Health is already over taxed with health crises and does not have the expertise or capacity to meet this challenge,” Tom Iwanicki wrote. “Ernie Lau and the Board of Water Supply have demonstrated integrity advocating for this precious resource.” 

The Navy initially put up a fight in response to the health department’s order to drain its facility before agreeing to comply.

The military maintains that Red Hill is a vital national security asset that provides a large portion of the war reserve fuel supply for the Indo-Pacific region. The Navy says the design of the facility, which is entirely underground and uses the force of gravity to move fuel, is strategically advantageous and resistant to attack.

Over the years, the Navy has been required to entertain the idea of moving its fuel elsewhere but has made clear that it intends to keep Red Hill in operation. Moving the fuel to a new location on the island would cost somewhere between $4 billion and $10 billion and could take until 2051, according to a 2018 report.

State And Feds Seeking More Information

Meanwhile, investigations are in motion.

A Navy command investigation into the cause of the water contamination was submitted to the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet on Jan. 14. Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, the Navy’s chief of information, said on Wednesday that the military is still reviewing the investigation but a copy of the report will be shared with the public at a later date.

Entrance to lower access tunnel of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility on Oahu.
The future of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility is uncertain. Courtesy: State Senate/2022

DOH Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathy Ho wrote the Navy a letter on Tuesday requesting a copy of the investigation. 

Navy representatives told stakeholders on Monday that it will not be made public until mid-February at the earliest, according to Frankel. 

Separately, the Navy is investigating safety concerns made by Red Hill employees before the water contamination came to light last year. 

In addition, a contested case hearing regarding the Navy’s DOH permit application was tentatively set for the week of May 23, Frankel said. 

A hearing officer had previously recommended the approval of the Navy’s permit application, with some conditions, but that was before military families began reporting there was fuel in their water. The case has since been reopened to consider new evidence. 

Ultimately, the hearing officer will submit a proposed decision and order to Hawaii Health Director Libby Char, and she will decide whether to issue the permit. 

In the meantime, DOH is planning a site inspection at Red Hill in March or April, Frankel said. And the department has ordered the Navy to produce a litany of documents, a copy of a DOH order shows.

The order includes facility renderings, a list of all fuel leaks, an organizational chart, inspection and repair records, emails and investigative documents.  

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