The contractor who was found to be at fault is still working at Red Hill.

Failures by a defense contractor and lax oversight by the Navy led to the release of 1,300 gallons of toxic firefighting chemicals at the Red Hill fuel facility in November, according to an investigation the military released Friday afternoon. 

The contractor, Kinetix, botched the installation of a valve in the fire suppression system in April 2022, the investigator found. Months later, during a test of the system, the company’s workers failed to turn off pumps that would release concentrated firefighting foam from that same valve.

Aqueous Film Forming Foam, or AFFF, contains toxic “forever chemicals” called PFAS associated with cancer and other health impacts. The release threatened the drinking water aquifer located just 100 feet below the Red Hill fuel tanks and contributed to increased distrust of the military within the community. 

Vice Adm. John Wade, commander of Joint Task Force Red Hill, shares the results of an investigation into a firefighting foam leak at Red Hill on May 5, 2023.
Vice Adm. John Wade, commander of Joint Task Force Red Hill, shared findings from the chemical leak investigation on Friday. (Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2023)

“This mishap was preventable,”  Vice Adm. John Wade, commander of Joint Task Force Red Hill, said at a press conference Friday afternoon. “On behalf of the Department of Defense, I’m truly sorry.”  

The investigation’s findings highlight how the Navy and its contractors have failed to properly operate and maintain the World War II-era fuel depot and appropriately respond to environmental emergencies. The incident occurred a year after back-to-back fuel leaks contaminated the drinking water of thousands of Pearl Harbor residents, some of whom say they are still ill as a result.

Shortly after noon on Nov. 29, the chemicals began spilling into the Red Hill tunnel. Exactly what time it started is unclear because a system that was supposed to log when pumps were activated wasn’t working, Wade said. 

The leak went on for over 20 minutes before a contractor even noticed it, according to a timeline provided by the Joint Task Force. And that observation was coincidental. That person was assigned to a different task at Red Hill, officials said. 

“There are no alarms for the AFFF system,” Wade said. “The control room had no indication that the pumps turned on.” 

A camera that would’ve captured the leak within the tunnel wasn’t operating, and even it if had been, the facility doesn’t have staff assigned to watch footage 24/7. 

The toxic liquid traveled to the entrance of the tunnel, called Adit 6, and beyond where an outdoor camera captured its movement. The Joint Task Force also released the video footage today. 

You can watch a condensed version published by the Joint Task Force here:

The chemicals were able to spread uncontrolled until the tank from which they came was empty, and workers who responded repeatedly walked through the chemicals without protective gear. That put their health at risk and also created opportunities for the chemicals to spread further, Wade said. 

The chemicals contaminated the tunnel floor, the roadway outside the tunnel and nearby soil. Personnel worked to remediate outdoor areas that were impacted, including removing impacted asphalt and soil. 

But contamination likely remains underneath the actual tunnel, which is made of porous concrete. The Navy hasn’t made an effort to remediate that area but may do so in the future, according to Rear Adm. Jeffrey Kilian, commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Pacific. 

The investigation by Maj. Gen. Richard Heitkamp, deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, focused on errors by Kinetix. However, Wade said the Navy bears responsibility as well. 

“It is my opinion that there were also shortcomings in the Navy quality assurance process at Red Hill,” he said. 

Red Hill Navy AFFF spill response video
First responders tried to sop up the chemicals with absorbant pads. (Navy video screenshot/2022)

The Navy failed to notice that the valve had been improperly installed and didn’t have an oversight process in place to ensure maintenance was performed correctly, he said. 

Navy officials knew that Red Hill’s fire suppression system, designed by InSynergy Engineering Inc. and built by Hensel Phelps, has caused problems for years. That, in combination with the fuel leak that tainted the Pearl Harbor area’s drinking water in November 2021, should’ve warranted more caution, Wade said. 

“I believe the Navy should have had stricter safeguards and more assertive oversight in place to reduce the risk of this type of mishap,” he said. 

Since the AFFF leak, the Joint Task Force has made changes to reduce the risk of a similar incident happening again, Wade said. 

The Joint Task Force has almost doubled in size, and its domain has expanded to essentially control the entire facility, Wade said. 

Any action planned for Red Hill doesn’t happen without Wade’s sign-off, he said. 

The Joint Task Force will also install new cameras ahead of the effort to drain the 100 million gallons of fuel that remain in the Red Hill tanks, Wade said. The Navy had previously said it wouldn’t put in a new camera system. But the AFFF incident underscored the need for surveillance, he said, “so we can capture and record and historically document what we are doing.” 

The AFFF incident and the investigation are not expected to impact the Joint Task Force’s timeline for defueling, which is scheduled for completion by June 2024, according to Wade.

In separate statements, U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda and Sen. Mazie Hirono said the investigation makes clear that the leak never should have happened.

“When incident after incident is the result of ‘human error,’ there comes a time when we need to recognize that there are systemic problems,” said Tokuda, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

“The Navy needs to act now to hold people accountable for this spill and ensure that its continued work to remediate and close Red Hill meets the standards of quality and safety that the people of Hawai‘i deserve.”

Impact Of Prior Leak Is Unknown

Military officials shared new information on Friday that raises troubling questions about contamination that may still be present in the soil near the spill site. 

Notably, the AFFF contamination at Red Hill may have started far sooner than November of last year. 

At issue is the pipeline that was designed to deliver AFFF from a pumphouse into the Adit 6 tunnel. That steel pipeline was encased in PVC piping to act as secondary containment in the event of a leak. 

In August 2021, Navy personnel discovered AFFF concentrate in that PVC piping, meaning a leak had occurred, but they didn’t know when or where it had started. 

Red Hill AFFF spill video screenshot
The leak of concentrated AFFF traveled outside of the Red Hill tunnel as personnel were apparently unable to stop it. (Navy video screenshot/2022)

To this day, the Navy doesn’t know whether that AFFF leaked into the environment, Kilian said.  

“The cleanup of Red Hill will last many years,” Kilian said. “And so as we move forward past the fueling, the Navy will still be at Red Hill cleaning up.” 

Another concern is that Kinetix is still an active contractor at Red Hill. Now that the investigation is out, the Navy will be reviewing its status, Kilian said. 

It’s unclear whether, and in what way, the Navy may hold Kinetix accountable for its errors.

As of last year, Kinetix held a $1.5 million contract for fire suppression maintenance and other tasks, according to Red Hill contracting information shared by former Rep. Kai Kahele’s office. The Navy granted Kinetix a no-bid extension to its contract – and hundreds of thousands more dollars  – in March 2022, just a month before its apparently shoddy work installing the valve. 

The Navy is reviewing the investigation for “possible contractor liability,” the investigative report states.

A message left with a Kinetix employee on Friday was not returned.

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