The actions represent steps toward internal accountability for the Red Hill debacle that upended the lives of thousands of Pearl Harbor-area residents.

Three retired Navy officers have been censured by the Navy for leadership failures at the Red Hill fuel facility where leaks contaminated Pearl Harbor’s drinking water in 2021, the Navy said Thursday.

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro sent letters of censure to retired Rear Adm. Peter Stamatopoulos, commander of the Naval Supply Systems Command during the spill; retired Rear Adm. John Korka, commander of Navy Facilities Engineering Command before the spill and retired Rear Adm. Timothy Kott, commander of Navy Region Hawaii during the spill.

Rear Admiral Timothy Kott commander of Navy Region Hawaii
Rear Adm. Timothy Kott, former commander of Navy Region Hawaii, has already retired. Under his leadership, there were no exercises to prepare to respond to fuel leaks at Red Hill, his censure letter states. (Navy photo)

The letters were recommended by Adm. Daryl Caudle, the commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command who had been tasked with leading “accountability actions” for the Red Hill disaster.

Caudle, in the role of consolidated disposition authority, an independent review authority, considered all Navy service members whose performance “may have been reasonably called into question” in two 2021 spills, the Navy said in a press release.

“What happened was not acceptable and the Department of the Navy will continue to take every
action to identify and remedy this issue,” Del Toro said in a statement. “Taking accountability is a step in restoring the trust in our relationship with the community.”

“We can and will take care of our people, while also preserving and protecting our national security interests in the Pacific and at home,” he added. “I have determined that there were no leaders in relevant positions at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility worthy of an end of tour award over the period in question.”

A censure does not involve any loss of pay or rank, according to Lt. Cmdr. Joe Keiley, a Navy spokesman.

“It’s a formal notice,” he said. “It goes in their record.”

The consolidated disposition authority also issued “letters of instruction” to Rear Adm. Dean VanderLey and retired Rear Adm. Robert Chadwick. VanderLey was the commander of NAVFAC Pacific during the November 2021 spill. Chadwick was the commander of Navy Region Hawaii during the May 2021 spill.

A letter of instruction is “written guidance to correct a deficiency,” according to Keiley.

“It can be referenced in any of their official service documentation,” Keiley said. “It is shown to promotion boards and others when they are up for their next advancements.”

The letters issued to the Navy officials represent the steps toward internal accountability for the Red Hill debacle that upended the lives of thousands of Pearl Harbor-area residents.

Many of those residents have sued the Navy, arguing that they have debilitating health problems to this day and aren’t getting proper medical care from the military health care system.

The drinking water well that serves Pearl Harbor was contaminated following cascading failures – one fuel spill in May 2021 was not properly investigated followed by a subsequent spill of the same fuel in November 2021. The second time, it caused massive drinking water contamination in a system that serves 93,000 people.

The censure letters fault leadership for poor decision-making before, during and after these events occurred.

The letter to Stamatopoulos says he “failed to adequately perform” his duties overseeing Fleet Logistics Center Pearl Harbor.

Under his leadership, the letter states NAVSUP did not issue policy guidance on qualifications, training, self-assessment, or operational practices at facilities like Red Hill. Stamatopoulos failed to “ensure proper readiness to respond to a complex fuel spill inside of Red Hill,” the letter states.

As a result, the letter says, his team was not ready to respond to the November spill, which crews found themselves unable to stop. It leaked for more than 30 hours.

Rear Adm. Peter Stamatopoulos, Naval Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP) commander and 49th chief of Supply Corps, speaks to students at a Joint Operational Contracting Support (OCS) Planning and Execution Course (JOPEC) held at Naval Support Activity Mechanicsburg, Pa., Aug. 17, 2021. NAVSUP hosted more than 20 personnel from across the Department of Defense Aug. 16-27 for the first time the command has ever hosted the 10-day course. (U.S. Navy photo by Ted Nichols/Released)
Rear Adm. Peter Stamatopoulos OKed a shoddy investigation that missed a key detail: 20,000 gallons of fuel was missing. The fuel would spew out of a pipeline months later. (U.S. Navy photo by Ted Nichols)

Stamatopoulos was also negligent in approving an inadequate investigation into the May 2021 spill.

If someone had looked more closely, they may have noticed there were 20,000 gallons of fuel unaccounted for. In November 2021, that fuel would spill out of a pipeline it had been sitting in, apparently unnoticed, for months.

“This inadequate investigation was the largest missed opportunity to properly identify the error in fuel accountability after the 6 May 2021 fuel spill,” the censure letter to Stamatopoulos states.

The failure to fully account for the fuel spilled in May 2021 was the “primary source” of the November spill, according to the letter.

Korka was in charge of Navy facilities. The commander of NAVFAC Pacific from May 2017 through September 2018, Korka failed to properly oversee the installation of Red Hill’s firefighting system, his censure letter states.

During the contracting and installation of the system, Korka allowed the contractor, Hensel Phelps, to use PVC piping instead of steel for a fire suppression drain line. The pipeline was designed to carry away water and used firefighting foam after a fire. However, during the May 2021 fuel spill, fuel was sucked into the system and entered that PVC drain line.

190619-N-YB753-0025 WASHINGTON (June 19, 2019) Rear Adm. John W. Korka, commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC), delivers opening remarks to executive leaders from eight Public Private Venture (PPV) housing partner companies during a meeting at Joint Base Anacostia in Washington, D.C., June 19. The Department of Defense is committed to providing quality living conditions to our service members and their families. The health, safety and security of our service members are their families is top priority. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Brian Morales)
Retired Rear Adm. John W. Korka, commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Command, failed to adequately oversee a contractor who didn’t install a pipeline to the proper specifications, according to his censure letter. (Navy/2019)

The fuel sat stagnant for months, weighing down the pipeline until it was hit by a cart in November 2021, triggering a massive leak. The use of PVC was a “proximate cause” of the spill, the censure letter states.

Kott, the former commander of Navy Region Hawaii, was faulted for his failure to prepare for leaks and for his response after the November 2021 fuel release, according to his censure letter.

For one, crews were not trained on what to do in the event of a leak, leaving them ill-equipped to respond to the November 2021 leak, according to the letter.

And after the fuel started leaking, Kott failed to activate the correct personnel to assess the situation. That meant that residents were drinking fuel-tainted water for a week before the Navy acknowledged there was fuel in the water.

“Had you ensured a proper environmental risk analysis, the risk to the drinking water system could have been identified before the first reports of contamination,” the letter states.

Rear Adm. Dean VanderLey, commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command meets with leaders of NAVFAC Northwest during a visit to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor in Silverdale, Washington, Jan. 12, 2023. The trip marked VanderLey’s first official visit to the Pacific Northwest area since he became NAVFAC commander. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Sophia H. Brooks)
Rear Adm. Dean VanderLey, commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command, received “written guidance to correct a deficiency.” (U.S. Navy/2023)

Kott also failed to tell the community that the Red Hill well had been “secured,” or turned off, until four days later. This hurt public trust and gave community members the impression that the Navy was not being transparent, the letter states.

The Navy did not share details of the letters to VanderLey and Chadwick. VanderLey was promoted to commander of NAVFAC headquarters last year.

Seven Navy captains also received “non-punitive letters of censure.” Cases for three of them are pending before a board of inquiry that will determine if they will be allowed to continue their naval service, the Navy said.

“That is not considered a punishment. It’s kept as a personal matter between the service member and the superior issuing that non-punitive letter,” Keiley said.

US Navy Rear Admiral Robert Chadwick speaks during Pearl Harbor shooting press conference.
Retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Robert Chadwick got a letter of instruction. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

The consolidated disposition authority also issued letters of instruction to a Navy commander and a Navy lieutenant commander.

Keiley declined to name those individuals, citing an unspecified Navy policy.

In its press release, the Navy said the accountability actions show that “a naval officer is never absolved of the personal requirement to discharge faithfully the duties of the office to the best of their abilities.”

Sierra Club Director Wayne Tanaka found the announcement underwhelming.

“That’s it?” he said. “They knew. Leadership knew, or should’ve known, what was going on, and instead they just gaslit us for years and lied to us until the worst happened.”

As recently as February 2021, Navy officials were stating in public and under oath that the facility met and exceeded all regulatory standards.

“They knew that was not the case,” Tanaka said. “My concern is without actual accountability, how does this motivate current and future leaders to prioritize our actual safety, our environment, all the things we need to survive in these islands?”

Asked to respond to concerns that the discipline wasn’t harsh enough, Keiley said: “We’re taking a step here but can certainly understand those frustrations.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono said systemic problems remain in Navy leadership. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

In a statement, Sen. Mazie Hirono, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said more work is needed to improve Navy leadership.

“Accountability being meted out to individuals is important, but true accountability for this disaster requires the Navy to address the systemic command and control failures, and a lack of requisite attention to infrastructure, that caused this disaster to happen,” she said.

She cited the command investigation into the May and November leaks that called out a culture of complacency, a lack of critical thinking and a lack of timely communication as contributing factors in the disaster.

“I have yet to see adequate evidence that Navy leadership is treating these service-wide issues with the seriousness or urgency they demand,” she said.

Help Power Local, Nonprofit News.

Across the nation and in Hawaii, news organizations are downsizing and closing their doors due to the ever-rising costs of keeping local journalism alive and well.

While Civil Beat has grown year over year, still only 1% of our readers are donors, and we need your help now more than ever.

Make a gift today of any amount, and your donation will be matched dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,500, thanks to a generous group of Civil Beat donors.

About the Author