Years before the Navy’s Honolulu drinking water supply was contaminated by major fuel leaks, military inspectors flagged major problems with fuel operations on both Oahu and Kauai, according to a summary of a 2019 Navy command inspection. 

Inspectors reviewing the U.S. Navy’s fuel operations in and around Pearl Harbor, including the Red Hill fuel facility, and Kauai’s Pacific Missile Range Facility identified multiple failures, according to the summary prepared by Naval Supply Systems Command, or NAVSUP. 

Leadership was not aware of its oversight responsibilities, required annual spill prevention training wasn’t happening and there was a “mindset of status quo, without questioning (environmental) risk.” 

“Minor leaks are not being cleaned up and fixed,” Danae Smith, a NAVSUP inspector, wrote. 

191121-N-EV910-024 PEARL HARBOR (Nov. 21, 2019) NAVSUP FLC Pearl Harbor provides fueling support to the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) during a port visit to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)
Navy fuel operators on Oahu were not fully complying with environmental rules in 2019, according to a NAVSUP inspection. Naval Supply Systems Command/2019

Valves that should’ve been shut were left open, NAVSUP observed. And personnel were “purposefully” discharging fuel from aboveground tanks into secondary containment catchment systems instead of the proper procedure of using spill buckets. 

Inspectors found that maintenance programs were insufficient. And the person in charge of certifying inventory and ensuring that documentation was complete and accurate wasn’t doing so, according to the findings. 

The inspection came more than two years before operations at the 80-year-old Red Hill fuel facility on Oahu leaked fuel into the drinking water of 93,000 Pearl Harbor water customers, sickening and displacing thousands of people. The Navy has said it believes the contamination was caused by two fuel leaks last year, both of which it blamed on “human error.”

But the NAVSUP inspection shows that the military’s fuel systems in Hawaii were dysfunctional prior to the 2021 leaks. The summary paints a picture of fuel operations being run with “carelessness,” said David Henkin, a senior attorney for Earthjustice. 

“It’s both disturbing and not surprising given everything that we’ve seen with respect to the Red Hill operation,” he said. 

Melanie Lau, a physician and member of the state Fuel Tank Advisory Committee, said the findings make her feel frustrated, disappointed and angry. 

“I feel helpless,” she said. “I feel like they knew about this, and nobody did anything about it. Nobody tried to prevent the disasters from happening.”

210812-N-TA290-1005 HONOLULU (August 12, 2021) Naval Supply Systems Command Fleet Logistics Center (NAVSUP FLC) Pearl Harbor's fuels department personnel provide 1.8 million gallons of fuel to the fleet replenishment oiler, USNS Yukon (T-AO-202), as it supports the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group (CSG) as it operates throughout the Indo-Pacific. The outstanding force serving at NAVSUP FLC Pearl Harbor continuously strives to meet the needs of their mission partners and ensure fleet readiness. (U.S. Navy photo by Daniel Mayberry/Released)
In addition to environmental concerns, NAVSUP inspectors found problems with maintenance, training and recordkeeping. NAVSUP FLC Pearl Harbor/2021

The summary document doesn’t identify which of the specific shortcomings occurred at which facility – Oahu or Kauai – and the Navy refused repeated requests to identify the location of each problem. 

Civil Beat filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the full command inspection report, which is pending. However, the release of all Red Hill-related FOIA requests is being delayed. 

In February, the Department of Defense ordered that it review all documents pertaining to Red Hill before they are released to the public so that DOD lawyers are not “caught by surprise” by document releases on this high-profile matter, according to the Navy FOIA Public Liaison Chris Julka. Attorneys representing military families have filed hundreds of claims so far in advance of what may become class-action lawsuits. 

“There is really a pattern here of the military being less than transparent,” Henkin said. 

“The people of the state of Hawaii, both on Kauai and Oahu, deserve to know about it, what the problems are and how they’ve addressed them.” 

Even without the full report, the NAVSUP summary alone shows that Oahu facilities in particular had significant problems. 

Inspectors determined Fleet Logistics Center Pearl Harbor, encompassing Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and Red Hill, didn’t meet muster in five out of six review categories, including environmental protection. The site overall was labeled “not fully compliant,” according to the summary. 

The Red Hill tank farm was found to be compliant in most categories, with the exception of the “administration and inventory” category. Inspectors noted that the attention paid to the Red Hill tanks has an “impact on the amount of time available for leaders to focus” elsewhere. 

Indeed, much of the focus on Red Hill in recent years has been on the corroding tanks following a 2014 tank leak of approximately 27,000 gallons. But the leaks reported since then have occurred in underground pipelines mauka of the main facility and at Pearl Harbor itself. 

In a statement, NAVSUP spokesman Rich Spiegel confirmed that the agency conducted a command inspection from Jan. 28 through Feb. 8, 2019. 

He said the problems Civil Beat asked about “accurately reflect some of the issues identified.” There were actually 67 “findings” related to petroleum operations at Fleet Logistics Center Pearl Harbor, according to Spiegel, but he did not identify them. 

All but four have been resolved and only one unresolved finding relates to Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, which includes the Red Hill complex, according to Speigel. That finding does not involve Red Hill though, he said. 

Spiegel said the next command inspection is scheduled for fiscal year 2023, which begins in October.

The Hawaii Department of Health does not have a copy of the NAVSUP inspection and was not aware of its findings, according to spokeswoman Katie Arita-Chang.

“If verified, these reports are concerning and add to the importance of our vigorous oversight of the defueling and decommissioning of Red Hill,” she said. “We will continue to exercise our oversight authority over underground storage tanks systems in Hawaii, including those operated by the Navy.”

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