As the public waits for the results of the Navy’s investigation into its fuel contamination crisis in Hawaii, a Navy document shows that the fire suppression system at the center of the probe has been a source of concern for years. 

In December 2019, one part of the fire suppression system that was installed in the 1980s suffered a pump failure, according to a publicly available Navy memo. Another part of the system, installed in 2017 and expanded in 2019, had a leak that required repair last year, but the Navy didn’t know where the leak was, the memo said. 

As of March, both parts of the system had experienced “unexpected operational failure” and would deploy only water – not firefighting foam – on a fuel fire, according to the Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command memo, which was written to justify the hiring of a contractor to fix the problems. 

Such a scenario would cause “catastrophic” damage to the World War II-era facility, the Navy said. 

“Operating this fuel facility without a reliable fire protection system is not an acceptable course of action,” the memo said.

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.
Red Hill’s fire suppression system requires repair and would need to be activated manually in the event of a fire, a Navy spokeswoman said. Courtesy: State Senate/2022

Today, thousands of military families have been displaced from their homes by a water contamination crisis that the Navy has linked to the Red Hill fire suppression system. The memo shows that Navy officials had serious concerns about its operation months, and even years, before fuel spewed from one of its pipelines into the drinking water supply of 93,000 people. 

It’s not clear if the flaws identified in the memo are connected to the recent leaks, but they are the latest example of disrepair in the underground network of massive storage tanks and pipelines that have for decades provided fuel to ships, aircraft and other military assets at nearby Pearl Harbor.

Even now, the fire suppression system still isn’t working as it should, despite more than $40 million in upgrades that were ordered in 2015.

If a fire erupted at Red Hill, the firefighting system would deploy water automatically, but firefighting foam would have to be turned on manually by facility personnel, according to Navy spokeswoman Lydia Robertson. 

“The associated AFFF system is currently in manual mode due to some repairs, but it is manned 24/7 and can be activated immediately through an established Standing Operating Procedure in the event of a fire,” she said in a statement.

“We are committed to providing a safe working environment for all of our personnel, to the safety and well-being of our workers, and to ensuring the safety of the facility,” she added.

The Navy declined to respond to questions about the specific system deficiencies described in the memo.

Military officials believe the fuel that contaminated the drinking water was sitting for months in a fire suppression drain line, officials have testified to the state health department.

That pipeline, which Robertson said was installed in 2019, is supposed to collect used firefighting foam and water after a fire and deliver it to an above ground storage tank. Capt. Gordie Meyer said at a hearing in December that under normal conditions, that drain line is meant to sit empty. 

Hear Meyer describe how the Navy believes the leak occurred:

Navy officials say they suspect fuel entered the drain line after a leak on May 6. At that time, it is estimated around 20,000 of gallons of jet fuel spewed into the facility’s lower access tunnel, flowed into a sump and entered the fire suppression drain line, according to the Navy. 

For reasons that are unclear, the fire suppression drain line did not pump those contents to the above ground storage tank. The Navy has not provided an explanation as to why that is. 

Instead, the fuel sat in the drain line until Nov. 20, when a cart allegedly crashed into the line and released the fuel into the tunnel, the Navy said. The Navy believes the fuel flowed into another drain line in the floor meant to collect rainwater – a line that the Navy didn’t previously know was there, Navy officials told lawmakers.

Graphic showing Red Hill tanks and how contaminated water can flow directly into the Red Hill well's "infiltration gallery," where what gets sucked up.
This graphic, shared by Rep. Kai Kahele, depicts the Red Hill tanks and how contaminated water can flow directly into the Red Hill well’s “infiltration gallery,” from which water was pumped. Kai Kahele presentation/2022

The site of the Nov. 20 leak is just a quarter-mile from the Red Hill shaft, the drinking water well that services the Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam distribution system. After the leak, the well contained levels of gasoline and diesel-range hydrocarbons at levels 350 times higher than the state threshold for drinking water, according to testing by the Hawaii Department of Health.

Marti Townsend, who protested the Navy’s fuel operations for years as the executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, said the years of problems with the fire suppression system are further evidence that the only option is to shut down Red Hill. 

“The Navy has been trying, and they have not been able to effectively manage this facility and all its complexities in a way that protects our environment,” she said. “It wasn’t designed to operate this long.”  

Ann Wright, an Army veteran and environmental activist, said the Navy memo also raises worker safety issues.

Putting water on a grease fire is known to spread a blaze. And in 2014, the Department of Defense said the nature of the Red Hill fuel facility’s operations create a “high potential” for fire.

A growing number of residents have been calling for the shutdown of the Red Hill fuel facility. The military is putting up a fight. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“It is horribly negligent of them not to have some firefighting capability should there have been some sort of explosion or a fire that would’ve – God only knows whether the whole Red Hill would’ve exploded or what,” Wright said. 

In early December, the Hawaii Department of Health ordered the Navy to cease all operations at Red Hill, install a water treatment plant to remediate the contamination it caused and drain its facility of fuel until it can demonstrate it can operate safely. 

The Navy initially said it would comply with that order, but the U.S. Department of Justice later filed legal appeals in state and federal court.

The federal government’s decision to fight the order has not been received well by the community or Hawaii’s local, state and federal representatives. Honolulu city council members said the Navy is risking the loss of its state land leases, and Hawaii senators told the Navy Secretary in a letter to “repair your damaged military assets and your damaged relationship with the state of Hawaii.”

The Hawaii Department of Health said in a statement that the Navy never informed regulators of any issues with its fire suppression system.

“DOH became aware of potential issues with the fire suppression system in late December 2021 after conducting an inspection of the facility,” DOH said. “It is imperative that the Navy complies with DOH’s emergency order to safely defuel Red Hill.”

The Environmental Protection Agency said in a brief statement that it has not been involved in the oversight of the Navy’s fire suppression system. 

Results of the Navy’s investigation into the cause of the water contamination were submitted to the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet on Jan. 14 but have not yet been released to the public.

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