The Navy had enough information to inform people of the public health threat but didn’t immediately act on it, officials said in newly released depositions.

It was November 2021, a week after an estimated 20,000 gallons of fuel spewed from a Red Hill facility pipeline, and families had started to report a fuel smell in their drinking water. 

Navy officials were putting two and two together, Leonard Joseph Nehl II, a supervisor in the Navy drinking water system, said in a recent deposition. 

When officials gathered in Navy Capt. Gordie Meyer’s office on Nov. 28, Nehl said he could smell fuel coming from Meyer’s bathroom sink.

“We need to let the people know,” Nehl recalled Meyer saying. 

Fuel spewed from a pipeline for more than a day at the Navy’s Red Hill bulk fuel storage facility in November 2021. (Obtained by Civil Beat/2022)

But they didn’t. Instead, the Navy put out a press release after 9:30 p.m. that night saying there was “no immediate indication that the water is not safe.” The Hawaii Department of Health wouldn’t issue an advisory until the following evening telling residents not to use the water if it has an odor

It wasn’t until Dec. 2 that the Navy confirmed with test results that the water contained fuel. By then, thousands of Pearl Harbor area residents had already drunk it, bathed their children in it and washed their dishes and laundry with it. Thousands of people have reported health problems, and some are still struggling with those impacts today.

Nehl was among the first Navy officials to be interviewed under oath about Red Hill as part of a mass tort lawsuit against the Navy, blaming it for its negligence in causing and responding to the drinking water debacle. His deposition and other documents, filed as exhibits to a motion in U.S. District Court on Tuesday, underscore the Navy’s failure to warn Pearl Harbor area residents about the threat to their drinking water. 

Even after thousands of gallons of fuel leaked near the well over the course of 34 hours on Nov. 20 and Nov. 21, 2021, and even after complaints started rolling in, the Navy didn’t confirm a problem until it had received test results back from a lab on the mainland. 

“This is a case about a government that poisoned its people,” the plaintiffs’ attorney Kristina Baehr said in a statement.

“On Nov 28, 2021, officers smelled fuel in the water and agreed that people must be warned not to use it. But that message hit the Navy spin machine. Instead, the Navy assured people that the water was safe to drink. They let days pass and thousands go to the emergency room before they acknowledged the enormous blast that contaminated the water.” 

In a statement Tuesday, Navy Region Hawaii spokesman Mike Andrews said the Navy immediately began investigating concerns about the water when complaints came in on Nov. 28 and shut down the well that same day. Officials shipped samples to an off-island lab because the state has no lab sensitive enough for the job.

“The Navy notified the public of the presence of fuel in Red Hill Shaft on December 2, when notification was received from the laboratory and a visible sheen was discovered in a sample from the Red Shaft,” Andrews said.

In federal court, the federal government has agreed it was negligent and caused injury, but proceedings are ongoing to determine the scope of the harm and monetary damages.

Admiral Samuel Paparo listens to reporter questions during a press conference about the the recent Red Hill fuel spill report. Photographs and story embargoed until 1AM Hawaii Time.
Adm. Samuel Paparo has acknowledged the Navy’s failures at Red Hill. The federal government doesn’t want plaintiffs’ attorneys to question him under oath. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

The documents filed on Tuesday were attached as exhibits to a motion aimed at deposing Adm. Samuel Paparo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The plaintiffs’ effort to get the four-star admiral under oath is getting pushback from the Navy because he is such a “​​high-ranking official,” federal government attorneys wrote in a motion to the court. 

“There is no reason under law or logic to prevent Plaintiffs from finding out the essential facts
that only Admiral Paparo knows,” the motion states.

Meanwhile, the Joint Task Force – Red Hill is working to safely remove fuel from the World War II-era storage facility facility. Over 100 million gallons of fuel remain perched above Oahu’s primary drinking water aquifer. The task force hopes to have more than 99% of the fuel removed by January. The plan to remove the remainder, an estimated 400,000, is unclear. 

Failure To Warn

In another deposition, Flynn Garcia, who works in the Navy drinking water system, answered questions under oath about responding to the Nov. 20 fuel spill. Although initial reports stated the leak may have been only water, or a water and fuel mixture, Garcia said it was immediately evident that the leak was fuel.

“How did I know? Well, the fumes were burning my eyes,” he said, according to the transcript. 

On Nov. 28, Garcia visited a nearby neighborhood to check the water coming out of a fire hydrant. 

“You smelled fuel in the water, didn’t you?” attorney Jim Baehr asked. 

“Yeah,” Garcia responded. 

Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility (RHBFSF) tour participants talk during a site visit in Halawa, Hawaii, Jan. 25, 2023. Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth toured the RHBFSF to gather more insight into the Joint Task Force-Red Hill (JTF-RH) mission and to discuss the contributions of Army personnel to the effort. The Department of Defense established JTF-RH to ensure the safe and expeditious defueling of the RHBFSF. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Matthew Mackintosh)
The Red Hill fuel facility was built in the 1940s and still contains over 100 million gallons of fuel. It sits directly over Oahu’s primary drinking water supply. (U.S. Army photo/2023)

“Would you warn your family or other friends that you knew on the water line if — if they were drinking that water?” Jim Baehr asked later in the deposition. 

“Yes,” Garcia said. 

“And why would you warn them?” the attorney asked.

“For their health,” Garcia responded. 

Some of the documents filed in court on Tuesday are memos completed as part of the military’s own Red Hill spill investigation. One summarized an interview with Meyer. He was the commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command, which was in charge of facility maintenance at Red Hill. 

Meyer, too, immediately recognized the leaked material as fuel on Nov. 20, according to the summary. 

Navy Capt. Gordie Meyer said when it comes to Red Hill, we don't have to choose between national security and the water supply. "We can have both," he said.
Navy Capt. Gordie Meyer knew early on that fuel, not water, had leaked at Red Hill. (Screenshot FTAC meeting/2021)

“Shortly after arriving CAPT Meyer stuck his finger in the liquid and you could tell there was fuel there,” the summary states. “CAPT Meyer’s concern was how to handle the release, how to isolate the fuel coming out, and making sure it could be contained and pumped out so it does not end up somewhere it should not be.” 

Following the leak, officials discussed what could be done to monitor impacts to the environment, Meyer told investigators, but that conversation was limited.

“There was no discussion about a decision to shut off the well,” the summary states. 

In fact, in the immediate aftermath of complaints about the water, Navy Capt. Albert “Bert” Hornyak “drank a whole glass” taken straight from the Red Hill well on Nov. 28, according to Nehl’s deposition.

“And he says, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t taste it, nothing. I don’t smell nothing. I’m sorry,’” Nehl recalled. 

The well was ultimately shut off that same day, according to the Navy. 

Rear Adm. Tim Kott, then commander of Navy Region Hawaii, told Paparo in an email the following morning that the Navy had no evidence of a problem. He told Paparo the well had been shuttered out of “an abundance of caution.”

“We have investigated, and do not currently have any indications of chemicals or fuel in the drinking water,” he wrote in the email, which was submitted to the court as an exhibit. “Engineers visited a number of those homes, and did not find a noticeable odor to the water.”

The Missing 20,000 Gallons

The November 2021 leak was caused in part by an earlier leak in May 2021 to which the Navy and its contractors failed to respond properly, according to the U.S. Pacific Fleet investigations into the disaster.

In May 2021, some 20,000 gallons of fuel spilled from a Red Hill tank. Officials cleaned up some of it, and accounted for some leaking into the environment, but they didn’t know where most of the fuel went.

160718-N-WC566-049 PEARL HARBOR (July 19, 2016) U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Florida (right) speaks with Fuels Deputy Director at Naval Supply Systems Command Fleet Logistics Center John Floyd during a congressional delegation visit to the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility near Pearl Harbor. Red Hill is a national strategic asset that provides fuel to operate in the Pacific while ensuring drinking water in the area remains safe. (U.S. Navy Photo By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Gabrielle Joyner/RELEASED)
U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Florida (right) speaks with John Floyd, deputy fuel director of NAVSUP Fleet Logistics Center Pearl Harbor, during a congressional delegation visit to the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility. (U.S. Navy Photo/2016)

Later, they would find out it had been captured by a retention pipeline designed to collect used water and firefighting foam in the event of a fire. The system was designed to pump that material to an aboveground tank, but after the May event, it failed to take the fuel all the way to its destination. Instead, it sat in a PVC pipe for months until someone hit it with a cart on Nov. 20, 2021.

That’s when it came spewing out into a Red Hill tunnel and gushed unstoppably for more than a day.

John Floyd, the civilian deputy director of fuel and facility management, had apparently been wondering about the missing fuel, according to a summary of Kott’s interview with military investigators.

“Mr. John Floyd made a statement during the visit along the lines of ‘that must have been where the 20k gallons went,'” the summary states, referring to a Nov. 21 conversation.

Kott told Paparo what he heard, according to the summary. Paparo then contacted the chief of naval operations by email, a copy of which was included in Tuesday’s court exhibits.

“I learned today (and only today) that more fuel was potentially missing from tank inventories following the 6 May event, believed to have been distributed to portions of the piping system,” he wrote.

“This is different than the 1,618 gallons of fuel reported as spilled (of which 1,580 gallons were recovered) and may be the source of the fuel in the fire suppression line. The ultimate disposition of that missing inventory is speculation at this point. I cannot rule out more leakage to the environment than the original 38 gallons reported,” he added.

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