Red Hill’s Fuel Director Raised An Alarm Before Pipes Leaked. The Navy Removed Her
Lt. Cmdr. Shannon Bencs reported problems with Red Hill’s infrastructure and leadership culture just months before fuel leaks contaminated the drinking water.
The fuel director insisted something wasn’t right.
Higher-ups were preventing her from reporting a fuel leak at Pearl Harbor and were misusing federal funds to cover it up, she said. And there were serious issues with the Red Hill fuel facility’s $54 million fire suppression system that had just been installed — namely, it was never fully functional.
When the director spoke up, she said she was silenced, sidelined and ultimately, “I was removed.”
Her responsibilities were taken away and she was told to report to the deputy fuel director – her subordinate.
She reported all this to the Navy Inspector General in late February 2021, records show.
About two months later, in May, some 20,000 gallons of fuel gushed from a Red Hill pipeline. It was sucked up by a fire suppression system that, because it was defective, failed to remove the contents from the facility as designed. So the fuel sat stagnant within a PVC pipe for months.
In November, the PVC pipe was damaged, and it spit the fuel back out. This time, the fuel contaminated a nearby drinking water well serving 93,000 people around Pearl Harbor.
The incident sickened hundreds of military families, drew public outrage and prompted the U.S. Department of Defense to make plans to shutter a World War II-era fuel depot it had stubbornly intended to keep open.
Former Red Hill fuel director Shannon Bencs’ alarm about the operations at Red Hill has not been reported until now. In investigative documents obtained by Civil Beat, she reported her concerns with great urgency, as if foreshadowing the crisis to come. Ultimately, her effective removal at the hands of Navy leadership “significantly” increased risk at the facility, the military’s own investigation found, setting the stage for back-to-back disasters that contaminated the water.
This story is based on her Naval Inspector General complaint, summaries of her discussions with investigators and records from the investigation by her command which capture what was happening behind the scenes at Red Hill immediately preceding the crisis.
Bencs’ complaint aligns with a key finding of the military’s own investigations into Red Hill: Leadership maintained “a culture of complacency” in which procedures were not followed and problems were downplayed at the fuel depot.
“If they had listened to her, they may have been able to stop this,” said Marti Townsend, an environmental attorney who has long advocated for Red Hill’s closure. “It’s absolutely outrageous.”
Bencs reported that she was ignored by the leadership of Fleet Logistics Center Pearl Harbor — which is part of Naval Supply Systems Command, or NAVSUP — including then-commanding officer Trent Kalp, then-executive officer Karlie Blake and Executive Director Scott Hedrick.
The records include responses from those individuals who point the finger back at Bencs. They say she was relieved of duty as fuel director because of performance issues.
But according to a U.S. Pacific Fleet investigation released by the military last year, it was the decision to diminish Bencs’ responsibilities in February 2021 that laid the groundwork for the impending public health crisis.
When then-commanding officer Kalp modified Bencs’s duties, it “effectively removed uniformed, military oversight of day-to-day operations at Red Hill,” according to one of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s 2022 reports. That raised the risks of fuel operations “significantly,” the investigation found.
U.S. Pacific Fleet investigators said Kalp also failed to address those risks, oversaw an “alarming level of procedural non-compliance” and demonstrated an overall lack of critical thinking and leadership that investigators found “disturbing.”
The U.S. Pacific Fleet investigations don’t mention any fault with Bencs’ performance.
Rear Adm. Peter Stamatopoulos, commander of NAVSUP, signed off on the command investigation into Bencs’ complaints sometime after Aug. 13, 2021. Whatever came of the investigation is unclear.
Much of the report, its conclusions and accompanying documents were redacted by the Department of Defense. Marks on the redactions indicate the DOD felt the information was part of a deliberative process not subject to disclosure or was information that, if revealed, would cause an unwarranted violation of privacy.
On behalf of his client, Bencs’ attorney, Carl Varady, declined to comment for this story.
Navy Region Hawaii referred questions to the Pentagon, which declined to comment. The command investigation may be over, but the Inspector General case appears to be open.
“We do not comment on ongoing investigations,” Lt. Molly Sanders, a Pentagon information officer, said in an email.
Civil Beat asked to speak with the military officials named in the records, but, through spokespeople, they too declined to comment, citing the pending IG investigation and an ongoing civil lawsuit.
Kristina Baehr, an attorney representing 4,100 individuals impacted by the water contamination, has argued in court filings that the Navy was negligent in operating Red Hill and failed to warn people of its dangers.
Bencs’ account is further evidence of that, Baehr said.
“Once again, we learn that the poisoning of 93,000 people was entirely foreseeable and preventable,” she said. “We also learn that there were good people in this story. There were people in the Navy trying to do the right thing, and Navy leadership did not listen.”
Despite Department of Justice resistance, Baehr said her team plans to question Bencs under oath next month.
Leak Not Reported, Funds Misspent
Bencs, 42, has been in the military for nearly 20 years and has a degree in petroleum management from the University of Kansas, the documents show. Her home of record is Arizona, and she enlisted in 2005, according to biographical information the Pentagon shared with Civil Beat. She has received numerous commendations and medals throughout her career.
As a supply corps officer, she was trained to manage inventory, logistics, maintenance, repairs and more.
Bencs took over as the Fleet Logistics Center Pearl Harbor fuel director in May 2020. Almost immediately, Bencs reported, it felt like a hostile work environment.
Male superiors excluded her from meetings and decisionmaking, misconstrued her words and “ostracized” her, she reported. She said she brought attention to processes and instructions not being followed but was undermined. The behavior prompted her to file an Article 138 complaint — charges a lower-ranking officer can bring against a superior.
“She stated that she was shut down, talked over, and that she believes that it’s because she is a woman who did not have extensive time and experience in the fuel community, despite her qualifications and training,” a command investigation report states.
Her higher-ups viewed the situation differently.
In a written response, then-commander Kalp denied creating a hostile work environment for Bencs. Deputy Fuel Director John Floyd, a civilian, wrote that he found Bencs “erratic, all over the place, mercurial.”
Some of the responses from both officials were redacted, but Floyd’s assessment of his superior was not.
“She was ineffective,” he said.
Karlie Blake, who was executive officer of Fleet Logistics Center Pearl Harbor, said Bencs was relieved as fuel director amid concerns about her performance.
“She was completely overwhelmed and not managing her responsibilities well,” she said. “She would frequently become fixated on irrelevant things (mainly historical events) and trying to prove people wrong.”
Bencs told investigators that her performance records showed she was “excelling,” and she had never been reprimanded before.
A problem arose around January 2021, when a fuel leak from a Red Hill pipeline was causing an oil sheen in Pearl Harbor. According to Defense Logistics Agency policy, any fuel leak of 25 gallons or more requires a report to the DLA, which owns the fuel.
But it was initially unclear whether the fuel release, first discovered in March 2020, was “historical” fuel product seeping out or an active leak of fresh fuel.
If it was not technically a new leak, some military officials felt, they were not obligated to report it. And in emails previously published by Civil Beat, they made clear they would rather keep the issue quiet. At the time, the Navy was in the process of applying for a health department permit for Red Hill.
Bencs objected, according to the documents. But her captain, Kalp, wouldn’t let her file a fuel spill report, she said.
“I am still a naval officer and it is my duty to report any wrongdoing,” Bencs wrote in her Navy IG complaint. “There is an active fuel leak at the Hotel pier and approximately 2,500 – 3,000 gallons of fuel have gone into the ocean.”
Floyd even went so far as to lie to the Hawaii Department of Health, according to Bencs. He allegedly told health officials the pipeline had only failed one leak detection test when in fact there were several.
In his declaration, Floyd said the health department was only interested in pipelines regulated by the state, and the pipeline at issue, called a defuel line, did not fall into that category. He said there was no effort to “circumvent reporting requirements.”
Bencs said she was barred from correcting him.
On Feb. 11, she said she was issued a “letter of instruction” that she considered a gag order. It prohibited her from speaking to anyone outside of her command without permission.
According to a Navy official whose name is redacted from the documents, Bencs’ communications were restricted in part to ensure leadership was “speaking with one voice when dealing with outside entities,” the report states.
But it appears the letter of instruction also had the broader effect of removing Bencs from her responsibilities. That same Navy official said it was determined Bencs should “step back” from some of her duties to focus on professional development. Bencs told the Navy IG that she was ordered to report to the deputy fuel director, her subordinate.
Bencs wouldn’t officially leave her position until May 16, according to the Pentagon. But the U.S. Pacific Fleet investigators make clear in their 2022 report that from Feb. 11 onward, she was the fuel director in name only — a decision they considered a major mistake.
“Even when we have people of good conscience who want to do the right thing, the institution of the U.S. military makes it difficult – even impossible – for them to do that, to follow what their good instincts tell them to do,” Townsend, the environmental attorney, said.
Even as Bencs’ superiors claimed the fuel in Pearl Harbor wasn’t a reportable leak, they had to spend money to clean it up. Here, Bencs alleged further improprieties.
To collect the leaked oil, the Navy used $2 million from money intended for maintenance and repairs, called Sustainment, Restoration and Modernization funds. Officials chose not to use funds designated for environmental cleanup.
According to Bencs, “this was done to circumvent required reporting and prevent negative press,” the report states.
A Navy official, whose name is redacted in the documents, later admitted to investigators that the money was “not used appropriately.” An analyst with the Defense Logistics Agency also backed up Benc’s claims, calling the money “misused.”
“Based on the daily reports that were provided by NAVFAC, 80-90% of the work is environmental remediation,” the analyst told investigators.
Asked about Bencs’ concerns, U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who represents Red Hill, suggested he has been aware of them for some time but didn’t provide details.
“Over the course of Red Hill I have been contacted by various individuals with concerns and information,” Case said in a statement this week.
When whistleblowers reach out, Case said he typically addresses them according to standard procedures for members of Congress, including maintaining confidentiality and referring the information to proper authorities.
“I believe these concerns and information remain under careful evaluation as those entities continue their independent reviews of Red Hill, as required by Congressional directives I and my delegation colleagues initiated,” he said.
Concerns About Fire System Foreshadow Crisis
Shortly after Bencs started working at Red Hill, she discovered that the fire suppression system was not fully functioning.
It was designed to spray water and aqueous film forming foam, known as AFFF, in the event of a blaze. Both elements are needed to combat a fuel fire and are critical in a facility that holds approximately 100 million gallons of fuel.
But Bencs found that the AFFF pipeline was drained and “locked” out such that the chemicals couldn’t be used. The system could automatically deploy only water, which isn’t sufficient to extinguish fuel fires and can actually spread flames around.
“There is a major safety issue to people working in the facility and to the general public as Red Hill sits in the middle of Halawa Valley,” Bencs told investigators. “I am extremely concerned for the safety of every worker, contractor and visitor that enters the facility as there is no safeguard against fire in case it occurs.”
Floyd told investigators that the AFFF had been drained amid concerns that “non-environmentally friendly AFFF” could contaminate the aquifer below the facility. He said in his declaration there were other ways to control a fire if one were to occur.
“Roving patrol, cameras, heat sensors, thermal imagers,” Floyd told investigators. “We have a 24-hour presence in Red Hill.”
Floyd’s contention about constant surveillance may have been overstated. As it turns out, when AFFF leaked from an improperly installed Red Hill valve in November 2022, no one noticed it for at least 20 minutes, according to the military’s investigation into that incident.
Bencs said she wanted to raise the issue with higher-ups but her “hands have been tied by my command.” She was forbidden by then from speaking to anyone outside of her chain of command, her complaint said.
Bencs also alleged mishandling of federal funds related to the fire suppression system. It was completed in July 2019, according to the report. But it never actually worked, Bencs said.
“This was mismanagement of $54 million in funds as the system was never operational,” Bencs told investigators.
One official told investigators that they couldn’t have put the AFFF back even if they wanted to.
“Unfortunately, we found some material issues with the system that prevented us from immediately placing it back into a fully operational status,” said the person, whose name is redacted from the report.
In May 2021, roughly 20,000 gallons of fuel leaked from a Red Hill pipeline. The majority of it ended up in a fire suppression retention line designed to carry water and AFFF to an aboveground storage tank after a fire.
But the system failed to pump the fuel to that retention tank, according to the military’s investigations into the incident. It just sat in the PVC piping somewhere in the middle.
Part of the reason seems to be faulty design: The contents of the pipeline would have to fight gravity to climb the elevation to the retention tank. Pumps were supposed to propel the contents to their destination, but the military’s investigative reports on the spills don’t explain why those don’t seem to have worked. A “system malfunction” was partially to blame, investigators found, but even they couldn’t figure out the nature of it.
The system was designed by defense contractor Hensel Phelps. The company responsible for the maintenance and repairs of the fire suppression system was Kinetix, which only recently lost its contract.
Defense department leadership also failed for six months to adequately investigate where the missing 20,000 gallons of fuel went, according to the Pacific Fleet investigations.
After the November leak, Floyd told a superior something to the effect of, “that’s where the 20,000 gallons of fuel went,” investigators found.
Bencs is now stationed at the Marine Corps Base in Kaneohe Bay, according to the Pentagon.
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it’s clear there were “serious leadership and accountability issues at Red Hill preceding the 2021 fuel leaks.”
“If concerns were raised about the facility’s operations in the months before those spills, it is important that those complaints, and any alleged retaliation, be fully investigated and addressed,” she said.
Townsend expressed appreciation to Bencs.
“It should outrage us all that protecting our health and safety is not the default setting of the people in charge around here. Our leaders knew, and sacrificed us in the name of war readiness. I appreciate that Shannon recognized this and did not stay silent.”