During inspections earlier this year, federal environmental regulators found the U.S. Navy has been violating state and federal rules in its fuel operations at the Red Hill fuel facility and on Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, according to records made public on Friday.

The Environmental Protection Agency found the Navy lacked a necessary spill response plan for a system of pipelines at Red Hill and is not operating that piping system “in accordance with good engineering practice,” an EPA official wrote in an August letter to the Navy.

The military has also been operating two fuel sumps at Red Hill that the EPA says should be regulated as underground fuel storage tanks but lack the required permits. 

No records could be found showing the sumps are meeting federal environmental standards, the agency found. And the Navy couldn’t demonstrate that it’s been checking for leaks in the sump tanks, nor at two other underground storage tanks at Hickam Airfield.

AIEA, Hawaii (April 11, 2022) Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command contractors Matt Cornman, front, and Jonathan Martinez perform a routine inspection on a water pipe that connects to a granular activated carbon system at the Red Hill Well. The U.S. Navy continues to work with federal, state and local organizations to support families and residents, conduct long-term monitoring of the Navy water system, and work toward remediating Red Hill Well and the surrounding area. For detailed information, go to: www.navy.mil/jointbasewater. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mar’Queon A. D. Tramble)
The Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility is a sprawling underground facility of tanks and pipelines that extend to Pearl Harbor. U.S. Pacific Fleet/2022

Navy personnel were also failing to properly conduct their own inspections at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam and at times were unaware they were required to do them, the EPA said. 

“Several Hickam Airfield hydrant pits contained liquids with noticeable odors of petroleum,” the EPA wrote. 

On its website, the EPA says the Navy has “taken steps to address EPA’s concerns and is working to ensure full compliance is achieved.” 

In response to inspectors’ findings, the Navy has submitted a pipeline spill response plan to the EPA and the state health department, according to Mike Andrews, a spokesman for Navy Region Hawaii. And under the observation of state and federal regulators, military officials recently conducted an exercise that simulated the actions needed to respond to a fuel spill.

That simulation “incorporated findings from the inspection report and demonstrated the Navy’s ability to respond to spills,” Andrews said in a statement.

The inspections were conducted between February and March after thousands of military families were sickened from drinking and bathing in fuel-tainted water that was contaminated by operations at Red Hill.

However, the inspection report was not intended to be an investigation into the causes of previous fuel releases, the EPA wrote. Officials were instead looking for compliance with federal rules and regulations, including the Clean Water Act. 

The EPA did not offer any comment beyond the information in the reports. 

The latest inspection follows the EPA’s release last month of its report on the Navy’s water distribution systems, which also identified numerous problems. 

Inspectors found there was no preventative maintenance program and no safety training or procedures. There were geckos nesting in water tanks, and bleach sitting out in the sun, allowing its disinfecting power to diminish. 

Meanwhile, the Navy is working with the EPA and Hawaii Department of Health on a plan to remove approximately 100 million gallons of fuel from the World War II-era fuel facility. 

Officials are balancing the need to remove the fuel quickly with the reality that the facility is in serious disrepair and, according to the military’s own investigation, has been run by leaders who perpetuated a culture of neglect. 

Currently, the Navy is estimating the facility could be emptied of fuel by July 2024. 

This month, Navy Rear Adm. John Wade was appointed the commander of the Red Hill Joint Task Force in charge of leading the defueling operation. He declined a Civil Beat interview request.

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