WATCH: Fuel Spewed ‘Full Blast’ Into Red Hill Tunnel In November

As fuel rained down, creating a virtual river on the concrete floor of a Red Hill facility tunnel in November, the worker who accidentally triggered the leak found himself powerless to stop it.

So he took photos and video.

The images, obtained by Civil Beat from a military source, have not been shared publicly before. They illustrate the horrific fuel leak at the Navy’s fuel storage complex on Nov. 20 that would ultimately contaminate the drinking water of military families living around Pearl Harbor, sickening hundreds.

The videos captured various points in time of the fuel release that, according to the Navy, lasted more than 34 hours.

In one video, embedded below, the worker records through the window of a ventilation door as fuel shoots out of a broken PVC pipe, creating a churning flood of fuel on the floor.

The disaster was set off by the driver of a cart inadvertently hitting and cracking the valve of a PVC pipe full of fuel, according to U.S. Pacific Fleet investigative reports released Thursday. The rover, who has not been identified, described the flow of the leak as being the equivalent of four safety showers on “full blast” all at once, according to the report. He did try to stop the spill but was “doused with fuel,” the report states. 

Civil Beat obtained the photos and videos taken by the Red Hill rover from an employee of a military agency who had access to them. The person shared the content on the condition that their name not be published because they were not authorized to release the materials. The metadata of the visuals align with the time and place of the Red Hill spill. 

The rover who hit the Red Hill pipeline valve with a cart took this photo of the fuel spilling out, according to the military source who shared it with Civil Beat. Provided to Civil Beat

The visuals the employee shared of the tunnel and pipeline also match photos taken of state lawmakers who took a tour of the leak location in January. 

Throughout the release, some 20,000 gallons of fuel spewed into the tunnel, according to the investigative reports. And it would take 21 hours for the leak to slow to a rate that would allow personnel to install a catchment system, Navy Region Hawaii spokeswoman Lydia Robertson said in a statement.

The rate at which the fuel was spilling changed over time, Robertson said, and that can be seen in the videos.

In another video shared by the source, the person filming pans from the spewing pipe to the cart that hit it as fuel flows down the tracks the cart was riding on. 

Meanwhile, an exhaust fan was running, blowing fuel vapors outside, the reports say. In another video, a cloth can be seen billowing in the breeze of the tunnel as fuel trickles out of the pipe. 

The deputy fuel director, on his way into work, would later report that he could smell fuel from the H-3 interstate.

In all of the videos, no one but the person filming appears to be present.

The rover ultimately went to the emergency room due to burning and itching skin, the investigative report said, the same symptoms that would plague many families who drank and showered in the fuel-tainted water in the days that followed. 

The Navy says most of the fuel was captured in the end. However, up to 5,542 gallons of fuel were never recovered. Some portion of that amount is believed to have contaminated Pearl Harbor’s drinking water through the porous concrete of the tunnel and a drain line located on the floor of the tunnel that connects directly to the drinking water source. The leak was just 380 feet away from the well, according to the Navy’s investigation. 

Despite knowledge of the severity of the leak and its proximity to the nearby Red Hill well, military leaders assured residents that their drinking water was safe and there was no cause for alarm. They continued those assurances even after the Hawaii Department of Health issued a Do Not Drink advisory on Nov. 29.

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.
During a January tour, a Navy official showed state lawmakers the fire suppression drain line that released fuel into a Red Hill tunnel. The appearance of the tunnel matches the videos from the military source. Courtesy: State Senate/2022

“For them to assure people at the time the water was safe is so irresponsible and maddening,” said Wayne Tanaka, executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii. 

“The people who were there, the people in charge, that didn’t speak up, they need to beg for forgiveness. It’s so obvious what the danger was and how much fuel was hemorrhaging into that tunnel.” 

Cracked PVC Pipe Illustrates Contracting Failure

The military source who shared the videos also provided a photo of the damaged PVC pipe, which makes plain why the Pacific Fleet investigators found that the pipeline was supposed to be made of steel, not PVC.

PVC can crack.

A crack can be seen in the PVC pipeline valve as fuel escapes into the tunnel. Provided to Civil Beat

Steel is far sturdier than PVC, which is important in a facility in which there is a likelihood of equipment being struck with a heavy object, the military’s supplemental investigation states. And PVC is not acceptable because part of it, called the gasket, “will break down when in contact with fuel,” the report states. 

And yet, the contractor, Hensel Phelps, installed PVC, and numerous government officials were aware of it for years, according to the report. Hensel Phelps did not respond to a request for comment. 

A 2017 investigation was conducted into the actions of the government and the construction contractor that led to the firefighting foam retention line being built with PVC, according to the report. But officials ultimately decided it would be too expensive to redo the whole job. 

“Retaining the majority of the pipe as PVC was proposed primarily due to the excessive cost to replace the pipe with steel,” the report states. 

The Naval Facilities Engineering Facility Command signed off on that plan, according to the report. 

Poor project management resulted in the Navy accepting a “deficient product that ultimately failed,” the Pacific Fleet’s supplemental investigative report says. 

Asked to explain this decision, Robertson pointed to the Pacific Fleet’s supplemental investigation, which says a Navy fire protection engineer OK’d the use of PVC with the understanding that the retention line was intended for firefighting foam and water and oil mixtures. It was understood that the pipeline would be deemed unusable if it were used to pump 100% fuel, according to the report.

What military officials evidently did not anticipate is that fuel would be in the pipeline without their knowledge for months because of a subpar investigation of an earlier leak in May.

While human error set off the crisis, the supplemental report says installation of the PVC pipe was a “proximate cause of the November spill.” 

When you have chronic, systemic failures in decision making, in planning, in critical thinking, these kinds of incidents aren’t a matter of if but when,” Tanaka said.

About the Author

An Important Note

If you consider nonprofit, independent news to be an essential service that helps keep our community informed, please include Civil Beat among your year-end contributions.

And for those who can, consider supporting us with a monthly gift, which helps keep our content free for those who need it most.

This year, we are making it our goal to raise $225,000 in reader support by December 31, to support our news coverage statewide and throughout the Pacific. Are you ready to help us continue this work?