Approximately 1,100 gallons of toxic fire-suppressing foam leaked at the Red Hill fuel facility on Tuesday, the military and Hawaii health department confirmed on Tuesday evening.

Aqueous film forming foam, also known as AFFF, was released on the upper end of the facility into the aboveground soil and into the underground facility, the health department said in a news release. AFFF is used to suppress fuel fires and contains chemicals known as PFAS that are linked to cancer and other health problems. PFAS chemicals are notorious environmental contaminants because they are “forever chemicals” that don’t break down in the environment.

According to the health department, the spill is not expected to have an impact on the water supply located 100 feet below the Red Hill tanks.

“There is no evidence that drinking water was impacted,” DOH spokeswoman Kaitlin Arita-Chang said. “Drinking water remains safe to drink.”
Safety stakeholder representatives and first responders conduct a safety walk through to identify and eliminate hazards through the tunnels during the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility (RHBFSF) Stakeholder Safety Walkthrough in Halawa, Hawaii, Oct. 12, 2022. Joint Task Force-Red Hill was established by the Department of Defense to ensure the safe and expeditious defueling of the RHBFSF. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Matthew Mackintosh)
Red Hill’s firefighting system has been dysfunctional for years, according to military records. Joint Task Force Red Hill/2022

On Tuesday evening, Navy Region Hawaii confirmed the foam release and said firefighting units responded shortly after 1 p.m. During a media briefing, Navy officials said the leak occurred during a maintenance activity run by engineers and contractors that work with the Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command.

The aim of the exercise was to ensure the system works, according to Navy Adm. John Wade, but something went terribly wrong. During the incident, the entire contents of the AFFF storage tank – 1,100 gallons – were drained, Navy officials said. They said the foam was released via a system pipeline, but they did not specify whether it came out of a broken pipe or an open valve. The cause of the leak is under investigation, they said.

The leak was “contained” by 2 p.m., the Navy said.

“Whatever happened, it is stopped,” Wade said.

Crews are now working to clean up the mess, the Navy and health department said.

The leak occurred as the Navy is in the process of defueling and decommissioning the World War II-era Red Hill fuel facility, although Navy officials emphasized the AFFF leak is unrelated to defueling efforts.

The Department of Defense ordered the facility to be shut down after thousands of gallons of fuel leaked into the water supply under the facility last year. Hundreds of families were sickened and are still experiencing health problems today, more than a year after the crisis began.

The tainted Red Hill shaft has been closed for the past year as a result of that contamination and the Navy has been working to remediate it. It is not currently being used for drinking water.

On Tuesday, the Navy said it doesn’t expect the shaft to be further impacted by the firefighting foam because the well is a mile away.

“Given the size of the release and the distance from the nearest active water well, our initial assessment is that it is unlikely to affect the drinking water or the aquifer,” the Navy said in its news release.

“There are currently no indications of any water contamination. We have also increased soil and water monitoring in the affected area.”

Kathleen Ho, Hawaii’s deputy director of environmental health, called the leak “egregious” and said the military needs to explain itself.

“AFFF contains PFAS forever chemicals — groundwater contamination could be devastating to our aquifer,” she said in a statement. “While details are limited at this time, the Joint Task Force and Navy need to be transparent about how this happened. Regulators will hold the Department of Defense accountable and will press the operator to take any and all appropriate corrective action throughout the defueling and decommissioning process.”

Wade agreed that the situation is “serious.”

“After talking with Ms. Ho, I don’t disagree with what she said,” he said.

DOH said it was notified about the incident around 3 p.m. When health officials responded shortly thereafter, the spill was still not contained, according to the department.

Asked about the two-hour delay in notifying regulators, Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett, the commander of Navy Region Hawaii, said the Navy prioritized responding to the incident.

“The first thing that we wanted to do was get up there to assess the extent of the release,” he said. “We also had to make sure that we had our folks there safely evacuated.”

Just before 5 p.m., Kathleen Elliott-Pahinui, a spokeswoman for the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, told Civil Beat she hadn’t been informed about the incident.

A Record Of Dysfunction

The Red Hill facility’s firefighting system has been troublesome for years and was even flagged as dangerous by federal worker safety inspectors earlier this year.

The newest part of the firefighting system, installed in 2017 and expanded in 2019, had a leak that required repair last year, according to a Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command memo obtained by Civil Beat. After inspecting the facility, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration called the leak an “environmental concern.”

The March 2021 Navy memo said the leak was located between the AFFF pump house and Adit 6, which is the area in which Tuesday’s incident occurred.

Red Hill fuel facility schematic showing removal of AFFF firefighting foam.
The Navy previously removed the AFFF from its system because of a leak near Adit 6, the same area as Tuesday’s incident. Provided to Civil Beat

“It is imperative to perform a thorough inspection of the system piping between Pump House Bldg. 313 and ADIT 6 entrance to determine the exact location of where the leak is coming from, properly address it, and restore the fire protection system to fully operable condition,” the memo states.

Whether that leak was fixed and whether it was a factor in Tuesday’s AFFF release is unclear.  Asked about it on Tuesday, the Navy Region Hawaii commander was not familiar with the matter.

“I do not know,” Barnett said.

Despite the facility’s history of problems, the Navy and the Department of Health have maintained that they don’t believe AFFF leaked into the drinking water during last year’s catastrophe.

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