State lawmakers and health officials called on the Navy to provide a better plan for emptying Red Hill of fuel amid concerns the process will take too long and pose new risks after a water contamination crisis that affected some 93,000 people on Oahu.

The hearing on Tuesday came after Hawaii’s Department of Health announced plans to reject the defueling plan because it lacks details and has an incomplete timeline.

“The highly anticipated defueling plan was disappointing,” said Kathy Ho, the Health Department’s deputy director of environmental health. “The emergency orders set forth seven elements that the defueling plan must address. The defueling plan did not completely address any of these elements.”

The Navy can’t move forward with its plan until it gets approval from DOH, according to DOH spokeswoman Katie Arita-Chang. She said the department plans to send an official letter rejecting the plan later this week.

Department of Health disapproves the Navy's defueling plan. during a Joint Senate House Informational Committee on the Red Hill fuel spill held at the Capitol Auditorium.
State lawmakers and the Department of Health grilled the Navy for more than two hours, expressing disappointment over its plan to defuel the Red Hill storage facility. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

During the meeting, three Navy admirals explained the five-phase plan including assessment, planning, execution, quality assurance and finally the start of the defueling in December 2024.

The Pentagon announced it would close the World War II-era facility near Pearl Harbor after a massive fuel leak contaminated the tap water of people who used the military’s water system, sickening some and displacing thousands from their homes for months.

The civilian water supply also was threatened when the Honolulu Board of Water Supply had to indefinitely shut down its Halawa Shaft, a major source of water for much of Oahu.

At least one of the five phases has been completed, while the second phase should be finished by August, according to Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett, commander of Navy Region Hawaii.

Barnett added that the third phase will begin in September and will take 17 months to complete. The fourth phase begins in February 2024 and will take three months to finish. He also said that the Navy will “continue to refine the plan as we go through the process and get new information.”

“Where prudent and where possible, we will look for opportunities to definitely accelerate our timeline based on this information,” Barnett said. “But we can’t do it at the cost of safety.”

However, health officials criticized those plans saying that the DOH and the Environmental Protection Agency don’t have enough time to provide meaningful comment and oversight for it.

Ho also pointed to missing plans within the Navy’s defueling plan such as the operations plan and the spill response plan. A report earlier this year described a litany of repairs that need to be done at the aging facility in order for the fuel to be drained safely.

“We understand the Navy is evaluating designs and repairs. These repairs are critical to the release,” Ho said. “We would like to see those evaluations and alternatives to be included in the defueling plan.”

“We hope the next plan that will be submitted will give enough details to enable the department to approve the plan as we move forward toward defueling the tanks and pipeline safely,” Ho continued.

The Navy has faced growing distrust from the public after videos and photos were published by Civil Beat showing the fuel spill that lasted more than 34 hours. The Navy had said previously that no such video existed. The Board of Water Supply’s manager and chief engineer Ernie Lau also has urged the Navy to drain their tanks faster.

Left, Senator Bennette Misalucha and right, Senator Donna Mercado-Kim during a Joint Senate House Informational Committee on the Red Hill fuel spill held at the Capitol Auditorium.
State Sens. Bennette Misalucha, left, and Donna Mercado Kim during a joint Senate and House committee meeting on the Navy’s defueling plan. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim was disappointed with the Navy’s incomplete plan.

“Missing plans, missing details. You seem to have experts on your side and yet a plan that is so disappointing and … so incomplete,” Kim said. “It worries and concerns me that this has been the practice of the Navy in the entire situation. How do we have more confidence and not keep delaying the defueling?”

Barnett said that the intention was not to delay the defueling, rather to have a framework that ensures the process is completed safely.

“I do understand your concern, ma’am,” Barnett said. “We’re going to have to earn your trust by providing these documents in a timely manner and doing the defueling.”

“It should be done safely and it will be done safely. And we have to earn that and we need to be transparent through the whole process,” he added.

State Rep. Sonny Ganaden said the defueling plan lacks urgency and asked when the Navy will come up with “a better plan.”

Barnett said they’re working on providing a new plan to the DOH by August.

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