The Honolulu Board of Water Supply’s manager and chief engineer stepped up pressure on the Navy to drain its Red Hill fuel storage facility faster, calling the timeline to begin removing the fuel by the end of 2024 “unacceptable.”

Ernie Lau spoke at a press conference Friday after the Navy released an investigation blaming a series of operational and leadership failures for a leak into the tap water of some 93,000 people living near Pearl Harbor, mainly military families, last year.

The Navy also submitted its defueling plan to the state Department of Health on Thursday, saying it likely won’t begin draining the fuel until the end of 2024 at the earliest.

“This is unacceptable, and the suggested timeline stands in stark contrast to repeated assurances from the Navy over the last several years that the Red Hill tanks and pipelines are properly designed, constructed and installed, that the facility meets or exceeds regulatory standards, and that each tank can be emptied in less than 24 hours,” Lau said.

Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernie Lau speaks to media about the recent US Navy report.
Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernie Lau expressed his disappointment in the Navy’s defueling plan. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

He urged the Navy to expedite the plan, noting that it only took three years to build the World War II-era facility.

“The defueling of the Red Hill facility calls for immediate action, complete transparency, and independent and impartial third-party scrutiny from now until the last drop of fuel is removed,” Lau said.

“That is the only way we can assure that the Navy will honor its commitment to safety and expeditiously defuel the Red Hill facility and relocate the fuel away from Oahu’s irreplaceable aquifer to protect the purity of our drinking water for present and future generations,” he continued.

The 80-year-old Red Hill Facility, located near Pearl Harbor, is made up of 20 tanks that currently store about 100 million gallons of fuel. Those massive tanks are 100 feet above Oahu’s aquifer that supply drinking water to much of the island.

Officials have warned that major repairs to the facility are needed in order for the fuel to be removed safely.

The contamination crisis began with fuel releases in May and November last year, which affected thousands of people, sickening many who ingested the fuel-laced water and displacing people from their homes for several months.

The Navy’s investigation into the May and November 2021 fuel releases detailed a string of problems including understaffing, bias among the leadership to assume best-case scenarios, a lack of clear leadership and no concrete process for self-assessment.

The report also revealed that more fuel leaked than initially reported. On May 6, 20,000 gallons escaped from the tanks instead of 1,000, for example.

Lau said he was “disturbed but not surprised” at the findings.

He pointed to a letter that he sent to the Navy in February 2014 after 27,000 gallons of fuel spilled. In the letter, Lau raised concerns about the threat to Oahu’s drinking water.

He said threats to nearby civilian wells from contamination by the Red Hill storage facility could be avoided “by remediating the petroleum contamination already there and installing additional groundwater monitoring wells to track any contamination that migrates to the site toward other wells in the area.”

The November leak also prompted the BWS to shut down its Halawa Shaft that services the civilian population as a precaution. The timeline to reopen the shaft is unknown, Lau said.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author