The Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility that contaminated military families’ drinking water could be shut down permanently if legislation introduced by Hawaii’s congressmen passes in the U.S. Congress.

The Red Hill Watershed and Aquifer Initiative Act would require the Navy to empty the fuel from the tanks and pipelines by the end of this year and permanently close the facility near Pearl Harbor. The water contamination that came to light in November sickened families, and the Navy delayed in telling residents there was a problem. 

“We serve willingly and honorably because we believe we’re keeping our country safe, and that in turn, our country will keep our military families safe,” U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele, a member of the National Guard, said at a press conference Friday in the Hawaii Capitol rotunda. “The military has failed to keep this commitment.”

Representative Kai Kahele speaks during a Red Hill Fuel tank rally held at the Capitol.
Representative Kai Kahele sponsored the Red Hill WAI Act.  Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The announcement represents the most significant legislative action taken yet regarding the Navy’s World War II-era fuel facility, located underground just 100 feet above Oahu’s main drinking water aquifer. The state health department had ordered the Navy to stop operations and defuel until it can prove it can operate safely, but the federal government is fighting that order in court.

Federal legislation is needed to show the military that shutting down Red Hill is not optional, Kahele said.

“The Pentagon doesn’t understand the gravity of this situation, and it’s up to our delegation to continue to convey that message and to educate all members of Congress on how grave the situation is here in Hawaii,” the Hawaii Democrat said.

The House legislation, introduced by Kahele, is supported by U.S. Rep. Ed Case. U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz announced on Friday that he had introduced companion legislation in the U.S. Senate. Both Case and Schatz previously secured funding to remove fuel from Red Hill. 

Representative Ed Case speaks during the Red Hill Fuel tank rally at the Capitol.
Rep. Ed Case said he is talking to other federal lawmakers to garner support for the Red Hill WAI Act. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The exception is U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who has not voiced support for the bills. Instead, she said in a video statement that she believes the state’s permitting process is the best way to decide Red Hill’s future. 

The Red Hill WAI Act would force the Navy to bear the expense of environmental remediation. The Navy also would have to reimburse local agencies for costs associated with their response to the crisis and expenditures related to drilling new wells.

The bill would also require the Navy to establish a water treatment facility and a water testing facility at Red Hill. In addition, the secretary of defense would need to file monthly reports to Congress on the military’s progress.

On top of that, the bill states the military would be further ordered to follow the state order issued in December. 

The Navy did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation.

Kahele said he’s not sure what President Joe Biden’s stance on his bill might be. As the senior senator from Hawaii, Schatz is in talks with the administration, Kahele said. 

Case said talks are already underway with other members of Congress, including Republicans. 

“I believe that they get it,” Case said.

‘No Substitute For Pure Water’

Kahele’s legislation has support from prominent state lawmakers, including House Speaker Scott Saiki who said the issue has aligned all three levels of government. 

“That is because all of us understand that Red Hill does represent, in many ways, the survival of our state,” he said. 

Demonstrators hold Hawaiian flags and signs calling for the closing of the Red Hill fuel tanks fronting the Capitol.
Demonstrators held Hawaiian flags and signs calling for the closing of the Red Hill fuel tanks at the Hawaii legislature on Friday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Sen. Donna Mercado Kim said she’s been concerned about Red Hill since a fuel leak of 27,000 gallons in 2014. For years, the Navy promised such a release could never happen again and that it was inventing innovative ways to upgrade the storage facility. 

“For eight years, the military has been looking at the issue and has not done what is pono and what should be done,” she said. 

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, who has been criticized for his silence on the water contamination issue, was present at the press conference and expressed his support for the federal legislation.

Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau received the loudest applause when he stepped to the lectern at the Capitol. 

For years, his warnings about the dangers Red Hill posed to drinking water fell on deaf ears. “There is no substitute for pure water,” he said. 

State Rep. Sonny Ganaden criticized the military for frequently blaming “human error” for its fuel leaks over the years. 

“It wasn’t,” he said. “This was a disaster waiting to happen.” 

He also noted that Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam has been operating for months without Red Hill, where operations were paused late last year. 

Also Friday, state lawmakers discussed legislative proposals of their own to respond to the Red Hill crisis, including Senate Bill 2600 that would require underground storage tank permit applicants to submit contingency plans for “worst case scenarios.” Several bills are also being considered in the Hawaii House.

Newly Released Documents Raise More Questions

Meanwhile, documents released by the Navy on Thursday raise new and troubling questions about the recent leaks and the facility’s condition. 

The documents were shared as part of the Navy’s pursuit of a state permit it applied for in 2019. The Sierra Club and Board of Water Supply have opposed the issuance of that permit for years now.

Navy Captain Albert "Bert" Hornyak, commanding officer, NAVSUP Fleet Logistics Center Pearl Harbor
Navy Capt. Albert “Bert” Hornyak wrote in an October email that there could be multiple leaky valves at Red hill. Screenshot: Fuel Tank Advisory Committee

In those contested case proceedings, DOH asked the Navy to hand over a litany of documents, and the first batch was released on Thursday.

One report contradicts the initial information the Navy shared about the November leak that contaminated the Red Hill well.

The Navy had claimed that on Nov. 20, 14,000 gallons of fuel and water were released from a fire suppression drain line when it was hit with a cart.

But the Navy now says it was 19,000 gallons of pure jet fuel, JP-5.

That’s according to a “preliminary site characterization plan” by the Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Hawaii dated January.

That number – 19,000 gallons — would match up with the amount Navy officials said was released on May 6 from one of the Red Hill tanks, as the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

In the document dump, there is also an Oct. 3, 2021 email in which Capt. Albert Hornyak, commanding officer of the NAVSUP Fleet Logistics Center at Pearl Harbor, states he believes “multiple valves in the Red Hill pipeline system are potentially leaking.” 

Navy spokeswoman Lydia Robertson did not respond to questions about the documents, noting that the investigation into the leaks is not yet public.

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