A coalition of public officials say that as much as 2 million gallons of petroleum threatens Oahu’s drinking water and that it could cost $750 million to clean up.

The Navy must clean up historical fuel spills at its Red Hill storage facility that amount to as much as 2 million gallons of petroleum threatening Oahu’s drinking water aquifer, a coalition of public officials declared on Tuesday. 

Two catastrophic fuel spills at Red Hill already contaminated the drinking water around Pearl Harbor in 2021, sickening many military families. But the total spilled that year – about 20,000 gallons – pales in comparison to oil that has leaked sporadically over the decades since Red Hill’s construction in the early 1940s.

Under the banner of the Red Hill Water Alliance Initiative, or Red Hill WAI, Honolulu and state officials on Tuesday released a report calling on the Navy to remediate the area, which is located directly above Oahu’s primary drinking water source. The accumulation and spread of fuel poses an ongoing “existential threat” to the aquifer, located just 100 feet below the facility, the report said.

Gov. Josh Green unveils the Red Hill Water Initiative (WAI) group’s final report Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, in Honolulu. Red Hill WAI is a group of state and city leaders to make sure the U.S. Navy and federal government remove and protect Oahu’s aquifers. Working together with the Hawaii executive branch are Senator Jarrett Keohokalole, from left, Gov. Green, House Speaker Scott Saiki and Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernest Lau. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Gov. Josh Green shared the Red Hill Water Alliance Initiative’s final report on Tuesday at the Capitol. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

“It is not acceptable to take a wait-and-see approach,” House Speaker Scott Saiki said at a press conference. “Immediate action must be taken now to ensure clean water now and in the future for Hawaii’s residents and the future of our state.”

The military is nearly done removing 104 million gallons of fuel that was stored in the Red Hill tanks and pipelines. But that doesn’t account for fuel that has leaked through the facility’s porous concrete tunnels over its 80-year history.

The report estimates the historical fuel releases amount to between 644,000 and 1.9 million gallons.

At least 180,000 gallons are documented to have leaked, according to the Navy’s own records. That includes the approximately 27,000 gallons released in 2014, the first major incident to gain widespread public attention.

Rep. Linda Ichiyama, co-chair of the House Special Committee on Red Hill summarizes the Red Hill Water Initiative (WAI) final report Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, in Honolulu. Red Hill WAI is a group of state and city leaders to make sure the U.S. Navy and federal government remove and protect Oahu’s aquifers. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Rep. Linda Ichiyama, co-chair of the House Special Committee on Red Hill, said the report’s recommendations could cost taxpayers $750 million over the next 30 years. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

In addition, a Navy-commissioned risk management report from 2018 determined more than 5,800 gallons are likely being released from Red Hill every year. Facility records have also shown that a former Red Hill employee reported a bunker fuel spill in the 1940s totaling up to 1.3 million gallons, according to the Red Hill WAI report.

At the press conference, Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole referenced the military bombings of Kahoolawe whose damage was never cleaned up. All levels of government are now joining hands when it comes to Red Hill to “ensure that that doesn’t happen again,” he said.

Red Hill WAI report’s demands include:

  • Accessing all of the Navy’s monitoring wells, or, if that’s not possible, at least requiring the Navy to test in accordance with the Red Hill WAI group’s specifications.
  • Research, to be coordinated by the University of Hawaii, into the “distribution, movement and characterization” of the leaked fuel under Red Hill.
  • The Department of Defense taking legal responsibility for environmental remediation and restoration and indemnifying the state and others against damages.
  • Creating a longterm health registry to study the effects of acute exposure to total petroleum hydrocarbons in drinking water and regularly review the effects of chronic exposure to low levels of these contaminants.

The state is hoping the Navy will cover the expense of this work, which Rep. Linda Ichiyama said would likely cost $750 million over 30 years. While Ichiyama said the state can’t force the military to pay, she said the state is working with Hawaii’s congressional delegation to secure the funding.

The group is taking a different tack than the Board of Water Supply, which filed a $1.2 billion legal claim last month under the Federal Tort Claims Act. That claim aims to hold the federal government financially accountable for the costs BWS has incurred due to the 2021 crisis, including finding new water sources further away from the Navy’s contamination.

Department of Land and Natural Resources Director Dawn Chang said officials would not use the state land the military leases as a bargaining chip to achieve the report’s aims. The state considers those leases, many of which expire in 2029, to be “separate and apart” from Red Hill.

The Navy said through a spokesman on Tuesday afternoon that it is committed to the safe and permanent closure of Red Hill and to longterm environmental remediation.

“Partnership and collaboration are key to the success of these endeavors, and we share the same goals as the people of Hawaii:  protect the environment, the water, and the community,” spokesman Chris Blachly said in a statement. “We will continue to share information with elected officials, stakeholders, and the public, reinforcing the importance of transparency and our enduring commitment to Hawaii.”

Blachly did not say whether the Navy intends to meet the Red Hill WAI group’s demands.

The existence of historic fuel contamination under Red Hill is not new to those who have been calling for the facility’s closure for years. Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau was well aware of it and since 2014 has been advocating for the removal of fuel at Red Hill. So have community groups like the Sierra Club of Hawaii.

Red Hill historical contamination -- Photos from a March 1999 Red Hill site characterization report show core samples taken from under the Red Hill tanks were stained with petroleum. (Board of Water Supply/2016)
Historical contamination at Red Hill is not news. Photos from a March 1999 site characterization report show core samples taken from under the Red Hill tanks were stained with petroleum. (Board of Water Supply/2016)

Aside from fears of an acute, catastrophic leak, they worried that historic contamination could sink through the lava rock under the facility over time, seep into the water supply and get sucked into drinking water wells.

However, for years, their calls for action fell on deaf ears. Green acknowledged on Tuesday there was no political will to take action on the matter until families were sickened by tainted water the week of Thanksgiving 2021.

As a state lawmaker, Green said he supported legislation after the 2014 leak to regulate Red Hill but it “didn’t make it.”

“This is not to create additional conflict – but at the time, the Navy and military lobbied heavily against that legislation,” he said. “We didn’t have the speakership or the governorship or the other chairships all on the same side … We didn’t have the political power at the time to take action.”

After the 2021 catastrophe, Green said there was more community involvement and there was “no question that the Navy had to be held to account.”

“The harm was so much more immediate just two years ago that we were able to get a lot more, many more, allies,” he said. “So that’s why we’re going forward now.”

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