Hawaii’s congressional delegation is calling for an investigation into the Navy’s response to firefighting foam spills at its World War II-era Red Hill fuel facility in Honolulu.

The lawmakers said on Monday that they want the U.S. Government Accountability Office to immediately look into a leak of an estimated 1,300 gallons of toxic firefighting foam concentrate at Red Hill earlier this month.

They are also pushing for answers about a prior spill that was uncovered by Civil Beat this week. An estimated 5,000 gallons of water, tainted with firefighting foam, flooded an underground pump house at Red Hill in September 2020, but the Navy allegedly told the health department at the time that no firefighting foam had been released.

U.S. Senator Brain Schatz gesturing with his hands as he speaks during the Democratic Party of Hawaii Unity Breakfast in Honolulu on Sunday the 14th, 2022. Civilbeat Photos Ronen Zilberman.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz signed a letter with the rest of the Hawaii congressional delegation demanding answers about the military’s spills of toxic firefighting foam in Hawaii. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2022

In a letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie K. Hirono and U.S. Reps. Ed Case and  Kai Kahele said Dodaro’s office should investigate whether the Navy adequately cleaned up those spills and whether the military inappropriately withheld information from regulators.

“This community and the people of Hawai‘i deserve answers regarding how the Navy undertook efforts to address these incidents and complete the clean-up and remediation of impacted sites,” the lawmakers wrote.

The firefighting foam the Navy uses is called aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF. It contains a class of chemicals called PFAS that are associated with a litany of health problems, including cancer, low birth weight and impacts to the immune system. They are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment.

A Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command (NAVFAC) Fleet Logistics Center (FLC) Pearl Harbor employee uses a shovel 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)
Crews have been cleaning up a spill of some 1,300 gallons of concentrated firefighting foam that spilled earlier this month. Joint Task Force Red Hill/2022

The Environmental Protection Agency significantly lowered its safety threshold for two kinds of PFAS earlier this year after discovering the chemicals are more hazardous than previously thought. The health advisories for two varieties, called PFOS and PFOA, were reduced from 70 parts per trillion to 0.02 and 0.004 parts per trillion, respectively.

In their letter, the lawmakers noted that PFAS was detected in the Pearl Harbor area’s drinking water in the last two years at levels that exceed today’s safety standards.

“This persistent threat underscores the necessity for adequate oversight and due diligence for the methods employed to handle the containment of such chemicals, safe storage, and eventual remediation of impacted sites,” the congressional delegation wrote.

“Without proper care, the legacy of damage of these spills will impact the health and well-being of people for generations and exact a devastating toll on the ecosystem and environment.”

The lawmakers wrote that the Department of Defense and the Navy should continue their own reviews of its PFAS spills, but a GAO investigation would provide “a necessary third-party assessment of their practices.”

The delegation said it wants to know what deficiencies exist in the Navy’s practices and procedures, whether other Hawaii sites contaminated by PFAS were remediated, and what PFAS-free firefighting foam alternatives exist.

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