A year after thousands of Pearl Harbor residents drank fuel-tainted water, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the military have drafted a new voluntary agreement that outlines next steps. 

The proposed settlement, called an administrative consent order, would require the Navy and Defense Logistics Agency to do two things they’ve already pledged to do: safely defuel and close Red Hill and properly operate and maintain its drinking water system, the EPA said in a public notice.

The goal is to “address and prevent releases of solid and hazardous wastes and protect drinking water, natural resources, human health, and the environment,” according to the draft agreement, signed on Tuesday. 

Joint Task Force-Red Hill (JTF-RH) and Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility (RHBFSF) leaders listen to a subject matter expert during a tour of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility (RHBFSF) in Halawa, Hawaii, Sept. 20, 2022. Joint Task Force-Red Hill ensures the safe and expeditious defueling of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility through coordination with State and Federal stakeholders in order to set conditions for closure while continuing to rebuild trust with the State of Hawaii and the local community of Oahu. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Matthew Mackintosh)
Navy officials have been working to drain the Red Hill storage facility after fuel contaminated the Pearl Harbor area’s drinking water last year. U.S. Army Pacific Public Affairs

“This order demonstrates EPA’s commitment to protect the Oahu aquifer from contamination,” EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator Martha Guzman said in a statement.

The tentative agreement comes after a series of failures at the Navy’s World War II-era facility last year contaminated the drinking water around Pearl Harbor with fuel, leaving families with health problems they are still struggling with. If approved, it will run parallel with the Hawaii Department of Health’s emergency order which requires the defueling of the facility. 

The EPA said it will require efforts to address the current contamination and prevent and contain future leaks, including regular flushing of the water system; water testing in homes, schools and businesses; semi-annual testing of the Red Hill tanks; and weekly soil vapor testing. It also calls for community involvement in the form of quarterly public updates during which residents can comment and ask questions.

Amy Miller, who leads the EPA’s regional enforcement and compliance assurance division, said the agreement was formed in light of last year’s contamination and EPA inspections that found major problems in the Navy’s Red Hill fuel operations and drinking water systems.

“Based on our inspections, it became clear there were updates that needed to happen to ensure that drinking water system is properly functioning and is being run in a manner that will maintain it,” she said. 

The public is invited to submit comments on the plan through Feb. 6 at www.regulations.gov under docket number “EPA-R09-RCRA-2022-0970.” The EPA said it will host a public meeting the week of Jan. 16 to discuss the details of the order and answer questions. The date, time and location will be announced later.

This is not the first time that the EPA has entered into a regulatory agreement with the Navy over Red Hill. 

In 2014, an estimated 27,000 gallons of fuel was released from one of the Red Hill tanks after personnel failed to respond to alarms for over a month. Following that incident, the EPA and the Navy entered into an “administrative order on consent,” or AOC, in 2015. The purpose of that agreement was to “address fuel releases and implement infrastructure improvements to protect human health and the environment,” according to the EPA website.  

After the latest disaster, environmental advocates said the 2015 AOC proved to be a failure.

In that voluntary regulatory structure, regulators would set deadlines only for the Navy to blow through them without any apparent consequences. 

For instance, the AOC mandated that the Navy upgrade the facility by 2037. The Navy disregarded that requirement and in 2019 pledged to either fortify the tanks – with technology that doesn’t yet exist – or defuel the tanks by 2045. The latest crisis began before either of those things happened. 

“Now, we’re eight years later, and there’s still no real progress on the AOC,” Honolulu Board of Water Supply Ernie Lau said last December, in the early days of the water contamination crisis. “So, if the process needs to be kept, it needs to be a process that allows for quick action and quick decisions by the regulators to hold the Navy’s feet to the fire.” 

BWS did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Miller said that the 2015 AOC, which will remain in place, requires investigation and remediation of fuel releases. But the new agreement adds stronger mechanisms for EPA oversight and more public engagement, she said. If the Navy fails to comply with the new consent order, Miller said the EPA could issue punitive fines or involve senior leadership.

In a joint statement on Wednesday, the Sierra Club of Hawaii and EarthJustice said they were disappointed that in proposing the new agreement, the EPA did not consult with BWS or community members who “for years have been sounding the alarm over the Navy’s Red Hill Facility.”

“As a result, federal officials have developed yet another toothless and potentially dangerous agreement, that would tolerate keeping our water, our island home, and our very way of life at risk of devastation for well over a year if not much, much longer,” the groups said.

“Hawaii residents must use the public comment opportunity to demand that the EPA do better.”

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