U.S. Navy officials told members of Congress on Tuesday morning that the military will comply with an order by Hawaii’s health department to drain its Red Hill fuel facility.
“We are in receipt of the emergency order issued by the Hawaii Department of Health, and we are taking action because that is a lawful order, to comply with that,” Rear Adm. Blake Converse, deputy commander of the Pacific Fleet, told lawmakers in a subcommittee meeting of the House Armed Services Committee.
However, it’s still unclear whether the Navy will pursue a legal challenge to the order. Converse said he didn’t know, and the U.S. Pacific Fleet did not respond to a request for clarity on Monday evening. In recent weeks, the Navy has argued that the state lacks the power to demand the shutdown of the federal facility.
“I am not a part of the decision-making apparatus on whether the Navy is going to contest that order,” Converse said. “I don’t have any information on that at this point.”
The Department of Health issued its order in early December, but Navy officials had argued in a case hearing that the tanks are vital for the nation’s self-defense, with tensions rising with China in the Pacific.
In the Subcommittee on Readiness meeting, which ran over two hours on Tuesday, members of Congress questioned Navy officials about the water contamination crisis in which jet fuel from the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility contaminated a well serving 93,000 Navy water customers last year.
The fuel-tainted water has sickened families, leaving some with lingering health impacts, and has displaced thousands of residents who evacuated to hotels.
“Let me be clear: Clean drinking water is national security and cannot be compromised for anything,” Hawaii Rep. Kai Kahele said.
“We are at an inflection point for the state of Hawaii’s public trust and relationship with the United States military moving forward. And up until now, that credibility and trust has been put to the test.”
Overall, the future of the World War II-era facility is uncertain.
Under the order, the Navy is required to drain its fuel and may only refuel in the future if it can meet state safety standards. If it cannot do so, the Navy will have to move its estimated 180 million gallons of fuel elsewhere, a scenario for which the Navy has not outlined a plan. In the meeting, officials focused on more immediate action steps.
An investigation into the cause of the contamination is wrapping up and will be submitted to the Pacific Fleet on or about Friday, Converse said. A third-party assessment also will be conducted on the facility’s integrity by an outside contractor, officials said. The Navy is working under a “very aggressive timeline” to meet the health department’s requirements, Converse said.
In response to questions from Rep. Jackie Speier, the Navy also revealed the existence of a separate investigation into safety concerns filed by Red Hill employees before the current contamination occurred.
Speier, a California Democrat, asked if any complaints were filed preceding the May 6 and Nov. 20 leaks last year “warning about the safety or any other preexisting hazardous conditions.”
Navy Rear Adm. Peter Stamatopoulos said there is an ongoing investigation – apart from the ones into the cause of the water contamination – that “involves employees of the Red Hill complex.”
“So the answer to you is yes,” he said. “There is, what I understand, an (Office of General Counsel) investigation, or (Inspector General) investigation directly looking into that.”
Speier then asked whether the Navy has concerns about a toxic work environment, harassment or discrimination at the Red Hill facility. Stamatopoulos said he is not privy to the details. Navy Region Hawaii did not immediately respond to a request for more information about that investigation.
During the meeting, several subcommittee members expressed concern about operations at the facility.
Speier asked whether Navy officers who run the tank farm are trained in petroleum management. Stamatopoulos said no. Kahele noted that three of the steel-lined tanks have not been inspected in approximately 40 years. Connecticut Democrat Rep. Joe Courtney said the number of personnel who work at Red Hill – approximately 40 people, according to Stamatopoulos – doesn’t seem like enough.
And Rep. Mike Waltz, a Florida Republican and former Green Beret, commented on his uneasiness with the Navy’s continued use of such an old piece of infrastructure.
“I am incredibly concerned that the Navy is using a World War II-era logistics strategy,” he said.
Rep. Ed Case, who represents the district that includes Red Hill and the communities whose water was poisoned, said he endorsed Kahele’s stance.
While operations at the Red Hill fuel facility are suspended, the Navy says it is operating sufficiently without them in the short term. However, some congressional representatives indicated they were uncomfortable with the idea of removing the fuel from Red Hill permanently.
Rep. Blake Moore, a Republican from Utah, urged “solutions over sensationalism.”
“While immediate action, compensation and remediation may all be necessary in response to this crisis, I would caution against overreactions that may harm military readiness,” he said.
Regarding mitigation of the contamination, Kahele said he was worried about the environmental impact of the Navy’s plan to treat contaminated water and pour it into the Halawa Stream, water from which residents catch fish and crab.
That plan, arranged in coordination with the state health department, is set to kick off Jan. 20, Kahele said. He urged the Navy to inform nearby residents of its discharge activities but also to seek alternatives.
“Today, I don’t have the best answer for you, sir,” said Rear Adm. John Korka, commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command. “But I will tell you that we will brief you as you requested on our plan, and we hope to have some other options available.”
Korka said the Navy is contracting with the University of Hawaii to study the ecology and aquatic life of the stream before, during and after the treated water is released.
In total, the Navy’s response to the water contamination crisis, including hotel rooms and remediation efforts, has already exceeded $250 million, Converse said.
The congressional committee will meet again in coming weeks for a classified briefing on the strategic importance of Red Hill to the military, according to the committee chair, Rep. John Garamendi.
“I’ll defer to that to talk about the long-term impact of ceasing operations of Red Hill and potentially defueling it or shifting the fuel elsewhere,” Converse said.
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