Gov. David Ige wants to see the results of an independent review of the operations of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility before making any demand that the U.S. Navy permanently decommission the tanks.

Ige’s administration has already issued an emergency order requiring the Navy to drain the underground tanks and suspend operations at Red Hill after leaking jet fuel caused a water contamination crisis last fall that forced thousands of military families to stop using their water or move into temporary housing.

That order also requires the Navy to “assess the operations and system integrity.”

“I do recognize that there is a huge risk, and that’s why the Navy needs to empty the tanks, and that’s why we’re not going to permit them to reuse it until we feel — and an independent assessment tells us — they can operate the tanks in a safe way that does not put our water at risk,” Ige said in an interview with Civil Beat Tuesday.

“We do think we have to start with removing the fuel and making certain that they have a plan to make the investments necessary to assure that we won’t end up with fuel in our water,” he said.

Governor David Ige during press conference announcing bills that he will veto at the Capitol.
Gov. David Ige, shown here in 2021, did not call for shutting down Red Hill as some had hoped. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Ige’s own state Department of Health noted Tuesday the underground Red Hill facility has a history of “multiple fuel spills going back decades,” and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply has shut down three of its wells in an effort to protect its system from the most recent spill.

But the governor said the Navy “has promised to use the best technology for double tanking and other things, and we do want an assessment of what the current situation is, and whether it can operate safely without fuel leaks.”

When asked why he isn’t calling for decommissioning the facility now, Ige noted the Department of Defense is a huge presence in Hawaii and is a “vibrant part in our economy.”

“In talking with them, they are committed. Their people are drinking from the same water source, and so they have an interest in keeping it safe and protected,” Ige said.

“I want to make certain that we can get to a place that is safer than we really feel today, but I also recognize that the military presence in our islands is an important part of our economy,” he said.

Ige’s stance puts him at odds with many Hawaii state lawmakers, including state Rep. Sonny Ganaden, who represents the Pearl Harbor area. The Senate is already considering a bill scheduled for a hearing on Wednesday that would impose new restrictions on underground fuel tanks.

“No third-party assessment is going to persuade me or others who represent people who’ve gotten ill that that thing should stick around,” Ganaden said of the Navy’s Red Hill facility.

Sierra Club Executive Director Wayne Tanaka and Hawaii Rep. Sonny Ganaden held a press conference on Oct. 19, 2021 to discuss the Navy's Red Hill fuel facility.
Sierra Club Executive Director Wayne Tanaka and Hawaii Rep. Sonny Ganaden, right, at a press conference after the latest Red Hill fuel spill last year. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat 2021

Ganaden said he does not trust the Navy to comply with an operations plan that is supposed to prevent any further leaks.

“They haven’t in the past — they clearly didn’t in the past — and they have been poor stewards of our shared resource,” he said.

House Speaker Scott Saiki said earlier this week he had hoped Ige would offer a more specific plan for decommissioning the Red Hill facility in the governor’s State of the State speech on Monday.

“The House has been clear, since December we have stated publicly that Red Hill needs to be de-fueled and decommissioned,” Saiki said.

Regardless of the governor’s position, Saiki said the House will advance legislation that seeks to close the facility.

The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility is made up of 20 massive, underground tanks and a network of pipelines that deliver fuel to Pearl Harbor more than two miles away.

The facility was built in the 1940s, and now holds millions of gallons of fuel in tanks made of corroding steel. The tanks sit 100 feet above a drinking water aquifer.

Ige said the actions by his administration have already shifted the “burden of proof” by making it clear the Navy must demonstrate it can operate Red Hill safely without ever allowing fuel to leak into the water source again.

“If they are able to do that, then we will consider re-issuing a permit,” he said.

The order requiring the Navy to remove the fuel from Red Hill also effectively forces the military to consider alternatives to Red Hill, rather than simply assuming it will be allowed to continue to operate, Ige said.

Ige said the state has the legal authority to regulate underground storage tanks, including Red Hill, an authority that was delegated to the state by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But the federal government “is a superior authority” to the state, Ige said, adding: “I’m certain that there are authorities that could be exercised by the federal government that would take precedence over state law.”

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