The jet fuel that contaminated the drinking water of thousands of military families spewed from a Red Hill fuel facility pipeline and went directly into the water supply by way of a drain line that the Navy didn’t even know was there, the Navy told state lawmakers during a tour last week.

Rep. Sonny Ganaden, who was on the tour, said the drain line is a few inches in diameter and looks like a hole in the floor of the tunnel. It was installed to collect naturally occurring moisture and drain it into the Red Hill drinking water well, he said. Except during a Nov. 20 leak, it didn’t collect water. It took in a “direct injection” of fuel, Ganaden said.

They didn’t know it was there,” he said. “It’s the worst-case scenario.” 

Lawmakers toured the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility on Jan. 6, 2022.
A Navy official showed lawmakers the hole in the floor where a drain line leads directly to the drinking water well. Courtesy: State Senate/2022

Navy officials didn’t know about the drain line until someone reviewed the facility’s schematics from 1941, Ganaden said.

Two other lawmakers on the tour, Sen. Donna Mercado Kim and City Councilwoman Radiant Cordero, corroborated Ganaden’s recollection of the Navy’s explanation.

For Cordero, that disclosure was deeply troubling and raises additional doubts about how well the Navy is running the World War II-era facility.

“If they don’t know the blueprints of the fuel tank facility, what else do they not know?” she said. “If we don’t know this, how will you even assess what needs to be fixed?”

Both Ganadan and Cordero said the tour confirmed their belief that the Red Hill fuel facility needs to be permanently shut down.

In a statement, Navy spokeswoman Lydia Robertson said the Navy has provided “information and context” to local and state leaders but that those discussions are based on working theories, not definitive causes.

Lawmakers toured the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility on Jan. 6, 2022. Pictured: A Navy official shows lawmakers the fire suppression drain line that released 14,000 gallons of water and fuel on Nov. 20, 2021.
During a Jan. 6 tour, a Navy official showed lawmakers the fire suppression drain line that released 14,000 gallons of water and fuel on Nov. 20. Courtesy: State Senate/2022

“The Pacific Fleet investigation is not yet complete and is looking at many aspects of the incidents,” she said. “It would be premature to identify a definite cause until the investigation is concluded and released.”

Navy officials have said previously that they believe that the water contamination was caused by two leaks last year.

The first, on May 6, released over 1,600 gallons of jet fuel after a pipeline burst in the lower access tunnel of the facility, according to the Navy, which blamed the incident on “human error.” After initially indicating that all the fuel was captured, the Navy later acknowledged it was not. And last month, officials told lawmakers that as much as 19,000 gallons of fuel may have also been released on that day from one of the Red Hill tanks, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

Officials now believe some of the fuel that leaked on May 6 ended up in a drain line of the facility’s fire suppression system that is supposed to capture water and firefighting foam after a fire. That drain line leads from the facility’s tunnels to an aboveground storage tank.

For reasons that are not yet clear, water and fuel sat in a section of that drain line for months, the Navy has said. According to the Navy, it was released when an operator allegedly drove a cart into the fire suppression drain line, hitting a valve and allowing fuel-contaminated water to spill out.

Red Hill

From there, according to lawmakers on the tour, the fuel pooled into a low-point in the walkway of the tunnel, where a trolley path is located, and it made its way into the drain line that leads to the drinking water well.

On Nov. 28, the Navy said it received a wave of complaints from nearby residents reporting a fuel smell in their water and family members falling ill because of it. Since then, thousands of families have been displaced from their homes, several investigations have been launched and the Hawaii Department of Health has ordered the Navy to remove the fuel from the Red Hill facility.

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