Toxic firefighting chemicals were spewing from a Red Hill fuel facility pipeline for an unknown length of time until a rover – someone in charge of walking the facility’s tunnels to detect problems – discovered the leak on Tuesday afternoon, Navy officials said Wednesday. 

Ultimately, an estimated 1,100 gallons of concentrated fire suppressant spilled onto the floor of a Red Hill tunnel and out of the tunnel entrance 40 feet away, according to the Navy. It was the entire contents of the storage tank from which it came, officials said. 

221130-N-FD567-1013 AIEA, Hawaii (Nov. 30, 2022) - Photo of the temporary staging area for aqueous film-forming foam recovery at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christopher Thomas)
Crews have filled 131 drums, each with a 55-gallon capacity, of soil contaminated with AFFF, the commander of Navy Region Hawaii said. Commander Navy Region Hawaii/2022

As was the case with previous fuel leaks at the facility, there is no security camera footage of the incident, officials said. And on Wednesday, Hawaii’s top Navy officials said they still don’t know the answers to questions like why the leak occurred or when it began.

The Navy clarified on Wednesday that the leak involved an undiluted concentrate of aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, which becomes a foam when mixed with water.

A Navy contractor, the mainland company Kinetix, was doing maintenance activities on the system on Tuesday morning, according to Navy Capt. Cameron Geertsema, the commanding officer of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Hawaii. 

Geertsema described the company as “very competent, very qualified,” and said it was working on installing heat sensors so that the fire suppression system could be deployed automatically.

The AFFF concentrate was stored in an aboveground tank near an entrance to one of Red Hill’s tunnels, known as Adit 6. 

The Red Hill AFFF pumphouse and the entrance to the tunnel where firefighting foam spilled can be seen from Google Earth.
The Red Hill AFFF pumphouse and the entrance to the tunnel where firefighting foam spilled can be seen from Google Earth. The foam supposedly leaked from a valve 40 feet into the tunnel and caused contamination at the tunnel entrance. Google Earth/Labels by Civil Beat 2022

What may have happened is that a valve near that storage tank, which was supposed to remain closed, actually opened, releasing chemicals into a steel pipeline that leads into the tunnel, officials said. 

“Right now, we’re investigating that,” Barnett said. “But that is a theory.” 

Adm. John Wade, who leads the Red Hill task force in charge of defueling, said officials don’t know why the AFFF was released. The foam concentrate then leaked out of an “air release valve,” designed to let air out of the system so it doesn’t become over-pressurized, according to Geertsema.   

john wade and stephen barnett red hill press conference
Navy Admirals Stephen Barnett and John Wade said there are a lot of unanswered questions. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2022

“So that is what the assessment that is ongoing right now to understand, you know, why did we get that release and then why didn’t the system operate as designed?” Wade said. 

“So is there a problem with the system? Was there a procedure that wasn’t followed? We just don’t know. So that’s what we’re looking at,” he added.

The Navy confirmed on Wednesday evening that Kinetix installed the air release valve from which the AFFF leaked. Messages left with the company on Wednesday were not returned. 

The system did have an alarm, the Navy said on Wednesday evening, but they did not specify whether it was activated on Tuesday.

According to the Navy, no workers were injured or sought medical treatment after the incident.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Hawaii Department of Health urged the Navy to identify the cause of the incident quickly.  

“It’s critical that the Navy and Department of Defense provide more information on how this happened so regulators can ensure that proper corrective action is taken,” the department said.

Environmental Hazards, Fire Risks

AFFF contains PFAS, or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Famous for not breaking down in the environment, these “forever chemicals” are associated with a litany of health impacts, from cancer to reproductive complications. 

As of now, DOH says it doesn’t believe the chemicals are a threat to the drinking water supply located 100 feet below the bottom of the Red Hill tanks. The Navy’s nearest in-use water source is the Waiawa shaft, which is five miles from the contamination site. 

221129-N-FD567-1057 AIEA, Hawaii (Nov. 29, 2022) - Two Naval Facilities Engineering System Command contractors place absorbent mats on an aqueous film-forming foam spill at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christopher Thomas)
Crews are using absorbant pads to soak up AFFF concentrate that has seeped into asphalt and concrete, Navy officials said. Commander Navy Region Hawaii/2022

The Navy is working to clean up the mess and has excavated 250 cubic feet of contaminated soil as well as additional asphalt and concrete, according to Barnett.

Personnel sealed the nearby storm drains. And Barnett said crews have used absorbent pads to soak up chemicals near the entrance of the tunnel, known as Adit 6. At any given time, 35 to 50 people are working on the cleanup, he said. 

The Red Hill tunnel is made of concrete, which is porous. According to the Navy, a plan for removing the contamination from the concrete itself and what lies beneath it hasn’t been established yet.

“We are still coordinating best clean up procedures with DOH and EPA and a final plan is forthcoming,” the Navy said in a statement after the press conference.

“The Navy is currently conducting a technical evaluation to determine the means and methods to remediate AFFF from the concrete surface.”

Both Wade and Barnett said they were not aware of any previous leaks of AFFF at Red Hill. 

The World War II-era facility, which contains over 100 million gallons of fuel in its massive storage tanks, is now left without any firefighting foam in its fire suppression system. In the event of a fire, the system would only deploy water, Barnett said.

That could create a very dangerous situation. Red Hill has been deemed to be a major fire hazard, and water alone cannot extinguish a fuel fire. Instead, it spreads it. When the AFFF system was disabled in the past, U.S. Occupational Health and Safety inspectors said it put workers at risk

Recognizing that, Wade said firefighters and fire trucks are now on hand 24/7, and officials are looking for “other risk mitigations.” 

In the meantime, all maintenance activity is paused at Red Hill, which could impact the Navy’s effort to defuel the facility, according to Wade. The health department issued an emergency order to the Navy last year to drain the fuel from Red Hill after petroleum from the facility contaminated Pearl Harbor families’ drinking water. 

“I want to be able to get to a point where we have adequate fire protection so that we can continue all the repairs, modifications and the enhancements that are required per the state emergency order so that we can move forward and keep to our timeline,” Wade said. “Again, this is a setback.” 

In response to follow-up questions, the Navy declined to say whether the leak was ongoing when it was discovered and whether protocols were followed in the response. 

“The timeline and sequence of events and what was witnessed is currently under investigation,” the Navy said.

At a separate press conference Wednesday, Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau said the military should replace the AFFF with a PFAS-free alternative.

He also urged the Navy to inform him immediately about contamination incidents. Lau said the Navy didn’t call him until six or seven hours after the leak was discovered.

“We need to know right away if something as serious as this has happened,” he said. “These things can pose serious threats to our drinking water resources, and they are persistent in the environment.” 

Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau gets emotional at a press conference discussing an AFFF leak at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.
Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau got emotional at a press conference as he spoke about new AFFF contamination at Red Hill. “Don’t put any more contamination into our precious wai,” he said.  Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2022

BWS says its water remains safe to drink. PFAS was detected at trace levels in two BWS wells last year, Lau said, but the health department determined the low levels were not a health threat.

Lau called on state and federal regulators to demand that the Navy do weekly testing of its monitoring wells to determine whether AFFF contamination is present, and if so, where it may be moving. Regulators should also insist that the Navy disclose its uses of AFFF and any prior releases, he said.

“We need to know what we’re dealing with,” he said.

On Wednesday afternoon, DOH said it would require the Navy to test for PFAS in soil and groundwater and to contact its AFFF manufacturer to identify its ingredients. The Navy said it would comply. 

Lau, who got emotional as he spoke, said he is deeply concerned that the PFAS chemicals will seep into the environment and into Oahu’s drinking water aquifer.

“I can’t say with 100% certainty, but from our experience, what you put in the ground eventually gets into the groundwater,” he said.

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