A bill unanimously passed by the Honolulu City Council on Wednesday takes aim at the Navy’s Red Hill fuel tanks and creates another mechanism to shut the troubled facility down.

Bill 48, which Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s said he plans to sign, requires fuel storage operators to obtain a Hawaii Department of Health permit to store regulated substances of 100,000 gallons or more.

It would apply to the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, which regularly holds 180 million gallons of fuel, and would add to the existing regulations the Navy is subject to under the federal Clean Water Act.

Lt. Commander Travis Myers walks in tunnel leading to the Red Hill well. The pipe at right will pump up to 5 million gallons of contaminated water to 8 tanks that contain granulated carbon to filter the contaminants and then be discharged into the Halawa Stream.
The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility was built in the 1940s just 100 feet above the drinking water aquifer. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The bill, introduced by Councilwoman Radiant Cordero and Chair Tommy Waters, specifies that the permit shall not be issued unless the applicant demonstrates that the facility “will not leak any regulated substance into the environment during its operating life” – a tall order for a World War II-era facility with many documented leaks.

The permit could also be revoked if a leak occurs, if the operator violates permit conditions or if it is determined that the operator obtained the permit by “misrepresentation,” according to the bill, which would take effect immediately upon the mayor’s approval.

“The public has been crying out for this,” Councilwoman Andria Tupola said during the council meeting.

Lawmakers toured the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility on Jan. 6, 2022. Pictured: City Councilwoman Radiant Cordero and Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson
City Councilwoman Radiant Cordero introduced Bill 48 with Chair Tommy Waters. Courtesy: State Senate/2022

Calls to shut down Red Hill have intensified since the facility leaked an estimated 19,000 gallons of jet fuel last year, contaminating the drinking water of Pearl Harbor-area military families.

The state Department of Health issued an emergency order in December to force the Navy to drain the fuel from the facility. Even though the order leaves open the possibility that the tanks could be filled again in the future, the U.S. Department of Justice is fighting the edict in state and federal court.

Separately, DOH is considering a Red Hill permit application filed by the Navy in 2019. The issuance of that permit has been held up by legal challenges from the Honolulu Board of Water Supply and the Sierra Club and is now further delayed by the current crisis.

The application materials for both permits would be the same, but the new bill would impose additional terms that aren’t already in place.

Meanwhile, bills are being considered at the Hawaii Legislature to shut down the Red Hill facility permanently. Federal legislation has also been introduced to accomplish the same, although it lacks the support of Sen. Mazie Hirono, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower.

The city needed to take action too because the occasion calls for all hands on deck, Councilwoman Esther Kiaaina said. Even still, she said she remains concerned that the federal government will continue to fight.

Kiaaina, a former member of the Obama administration, said President Joe Biden and the secretary of defense should order the permanent closure of the facility. Their refusal to do that up to this point is threatening the military’s relationship with Hawaii, she said.

“The U.S. Navy would like us to believe that without retaining Red Hill, that we the people of Hawaii are jeopardizing national security. I don’t think so,” Kiaaina said. “I think that their continuance of disrespecting the people of Hawaii and all of our political leaders is jeopardizing national security.”

Navy Region Hawaii did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, Blangiardi called Bill 48 a “vitally important piece of legislation.”

“The City looks forward to working with both state and federal agencies in the preservation and protection of our precious groundwater,” he said.

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