Two years before this month’s leak of toxic firefighting foam at the Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility, fire suppressant foam spilled in another part of the complex, Navy records show.

But when Hawaii Department of Health officials asked about it, they said the Navy told them no firefighting foam had been released.

Aqueous film forming foam and water flooded the floor of an underground pump house in September 2020, according to a former Red Hill employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share information. The fire suppression system had been activated even though there was no fire, and the floor was covered with white foam and liquid, the former employee said.

The Navy said this week that 5,000 gallons of liquid were released on Sept. 29, 2020 after an “inadvertent trigger” of the fire suppression system, but it said the liquid was water from a pipeline that previously contained AFFF.

Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command (NAVFAC) Fleet Logistics Center (FLC) Pearl Harbor employees uses tools to relocate contaminated soil onto a wheelbarrow as part of NAVFAC Public Works Department and Joint Task Force-Red Hill’s (JTF-RH) hazard material spill recovery operation at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility (RHBFSF) in Halawa, Hawaii, Dec. 1, 2022. Remediation of the spill site through excavation and removal of contaminated surfaces and material was immediately initiated after an estimated 1,100 gallons of aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) concentrate spilled from the fire suppression system at RHBFSF Adit 6 on Nov. 29, 2022. JTF-RH 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)
The Navy has been working to clean up a 1,300-gallon leak of AFFF at Red Hill this month. Two years ago, the Red Hill fire suppression system released AFFF in another part of the complex. Joint Task Force Red Hill/2022

The Hawaii Department of Health was scheduled to do an inspection of Red Hill that very same week.

Two days after the spill, on Oct. 1, Navy officials told inspectors from the DOH underground storage tank inspection team that they wouldn’t be able to inspect the underground pump house and surge tanks at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam as planned because of a “fire suppression system deployment,” DOH said in a statement.

The team returned a week later to conduct its inspection of those areas, DOH said. DOH later asked the Navy if any AFFF had been released.

“The Navy responded by saying there had not been a release,” DOH said. 

But the Navy knew right away that the spill involved AFFF, Navy records show.

On Sept. 30, the day after the spill, military officials asked for $50,000 to fund an “emergency response” to an “AFFF spill” at Adit 1, where the pumphouse is located, according to a Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command fund request form obtained by Civil Beat.

That same day, the Navy contracted with Pacific Commercial Services, a local environmental remediation company, to address an “AFFF spill,” according to public contracting information available on the Federal Procurement Data System website. The contract category is labeled “hazardous waste collection.”

Red Hill Navy contracting record for AFFF spill (Source: Federal Procurement Data System)
Publicly available federal contracting records show the Navy hired an environmental remediation company on Sept. 30, 2020 to do “hazardous waste collection” after an “AFFF spill.” The Navy later told the health department no AFFF had been released. Source: Federal Procurement Data System Federal Procurement Data System

The company was hired to provide large containers, called frac tanks, to store the spilled substance. The Navy continued to rent the tanks under the same contract number, N6247820F4357, throughout last year. In July 2021, the contract duties changed to “Rental, testing and disposal of contaminated water for 7 FRAC Tanks.”

In all, the work has cost the Navy over $1.5 million, the contracting records show.

The Navy declined to be interviewed about the spill and did not answer written questions.

However, in a statement, Navy Region Hawaii spokesman Mike Andrews acknowledged that water spilled from a pipeline that previously contained AFFF.

Therefore, “there may have been residual AFFF in the line,” DOH said.

At the time of the spill, the Navy was under no obligation to report the spill to regulators, according to Andrews, but the facility is under increased scrutiny now.

“At this time, there was no requirement to report this event to DOH,” Andrews said. “Under current agreements with DOH, the Navy would notify DOH if a similar incident happened today. We have notified them of this incident.”

DOH said in a statement that based on the information it has about the incident, “it does not appear the Navy would have been required to notify DOH.” However, the department said it has initiated a formal request for additional information.

Andrews told Civil Beat the chemicals did not reach the environment surrounding the pump house, but he didn’t respond to a question about how the Navy determined that.

The floor of the pump house is made of concrete, which is porous, the former employee said.

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency said they only found out about the spill on Thursday from the Hawaii Department of Health after Civil Beat contacted both agencies about it. The EPA said it is now investigating the incident. 

It’s possible the Navy wasn’t required to report the incident to the EPA either. AFFF is not currently on the lists of toxic pollutants or hazardous wastes in the Clean Water Act or the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the agency said. But the EPA has proposed adding the ingredients in AFFF to a different hazardous substances list, a change that would require the disclosure of AFFF spills.

Whether the Navy was required to report the 2020 spill to the EPA is part of the agency’s investigation, EPA spokesman John Senn said in an email. 

The previous spill is coming to light as the Navy responds to another AFFF release at Red Hill that occurred this month and has sparked public outrage.

During maintenance activity by the contractor Kinetix, an estimated 1,300 gallons of concentrated AFFF spilled into a tunnel at Red Hill and leaked out the entrance some 40 feet away. Navy officials said an investigation is underway to determine how and why this happened.

In light of the recent spill, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply has called on the Navy to share information about prior leaks, and the Navy said Friday that it plans to do that. 

“We are reviewing our records and will communicate with DOH regarding historical instances of AFFF releases as we identify them,” the Navy said. “We take our responsibility to be good stewards of the environment and are committed to working with our regulators as we focus on protecting the environment, the water and the community.”

Navy officials sat on a panel at Moanalua Middle School, moderated by Jacob Aki, to discuss the Red Hill fuel facility. Community members heckled the panelists and held up signs demanding transparency.
Community members heckled Navy panelists at a town hall on Dec. 12 and held up signs demanding transparency about this month’s AFFF leak. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2022

The Navy has promised to drain the World War II-era Red Hill complex of 100 million gallons of fuel. The Department of Defense ordered the facility’s closure after fuel leaks last year contaminated the drinking water of thousands of Pearl Harbor area residents, sickening entire families. 

Community members have consistently expressed anger and frustration with the Navy’s repeated failures and lack of transparency when it comes to Red Hill. Political leaders also have signaled that the Navy’s poor management of the facility is threatening the military’s relationship with Hawaii at large.

Rep. Kai Kahele said earlier this month that the ongoing crisis has caused “a nearly ubiquitous erosion of public trust” in the Navy across the state.

High Levels Of Toxic Chemicals

AFFF contains toxic chemicals known as PFAS that are suspected of causing a host of health problems, such as cancer, birth defects and liver damage. They are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t disintegrate in the environment and can bioaccumulate in the bodies of animals and people. 

Developed by the Navy itself and the 3M Corp., the federal government has known for decades the chemicals were toxic but has only recently proclaimed its commitment to moving to alternatives. The chemicals have contaminated drinking water on U.S. military bases across the world, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization. And the chemicals were recently cited by the state of Washington’s health department in an advisory against eating fish from certain lakes in that state.

Earlier this year, the EPA drastically lowered its safety threshold for two kinds of PFAS, noting that the chemicals are more dangerous than previously thought.

After Civil Beat contacted DOH this week about the 2020 spill, the department said it asked the Navy again about the incident. The Navy told DOH that the discharged material was “awaiting sampling and disposal,” according to the department.

But the Navy already sampled the spilled material in December 2020, according to a copy of the test results obtained by Civil Beat. And the results show hazardously high levels of PFAS chemicals, which are a key ingredient of AFFF.

An aerial view of the USS Arizona and USS Missouri Memorials at Ford Island, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Diamond Head, Honolulu and Waikiki are in the distance. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Johans Chavarro/Released)
The underground pumphouse is located near the Makalapa area and the Navy’s “upper tank farm,” six cylindrical aboveground storage tanks on Pearl Harbor. U.S. Navy

The lab report by the California-based company Eurofins shows one sample contained a type of PFAS – called PFOS – at 200,000 nanograms per liter. That’s another way of saying 200,000 parts per trillion, according to the EPA.

That is 10 million times the EPA’s health advisory limit for that chemical: 0.02 parts per trillion. Concentrations of PFOS in drinking water above that advisory limit are expected to cause adverse health effects. 

Other samples detected PFOS at similarly high levels, between 27,000 and 170,000 parts per trillion, the report shows. Testing also detected an alphabet soup of other kinds of PFAS whose health effects are lesser known. 

The EPA is concerned about those detections, Amy Miller, director of the enforcement and compliance assurance division of EPA Region 9, said in a statement.

“EPA is engaging with the Navy and the State of Hawaii to gather more information on this alleged incident, and we remain committed to our oversight role for any incidents at the Red Hill facility under federal environmental laws,” she said. 

As of Friday afternoon, the Navy said the substances in the frac tanks had been “tested and disposed of in accordance with regulations.” The Navy did not answer a question about the disposal method.

The Adit 1 pumphouse, which is part of the sprawling Red Hill facility, is located on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam near the Makalapa area, about three miles from the Red Hill fuel storage tanks. 

Red Hill map showing tanks and adits 1 through 6 (Source: Historical American Engineering Record, Library of Congress. Text amplified and red highlight added by Civil Beat)
A map of the Red Hill complex shows the pumphouse in red on the left, near Pearl Harbor and Makalapa crater, and the Red Hill fuel tanks up the mountain, on the right. Source: Historical American Engineering Record, Library of Congress. Text amplified and red highlight added by Civil Beat Historical American Engineering Record

Red Hill’s fire suppression system has two parts, both of which have posed problems over the years, government records show. In the event of a fire, the main system is designed to supply AFFF to Red Hill’s gallery of 20 massive tanks. That AFFF comes from a storage facility near Adit 6, which is where the most recent leak occurred. 

The other system, near Pearl Harbor, serves the tunnel system in that area, referred to as Adit 1. 

Sometime after the 2020 leak, the Navy put both parts of the system on manual mode, meaning firefighting foam would not deploy automatically in the event of a fire. Water alone cannot put out a fuel fire. 

Inspectors with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration would flag this as a safety issue about a year later. In their November 2021 report, the agency wrote that the AFFF system in Adit 1 had a “known mechanical issue.” 

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