A group of activists said on Tuesday that it plans to sue the U.S. Navy to force it to expedite its plan to double-line its World War II-era underground fuel tanks at Red Hill.

The plaintiffs, members of a group called the Wai Ola Alliance, are Mary “Auntie Maxine” Kahaulelio, a Hawaiian elder with a long history of protest, including against the military bombing of Kahoolawe and the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea; Clarence “Ku” Ching, a former Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee and Hawaiian cultural practitioner; Kim Coco Iwamoto, a former Board of Education member and three-time political candidate; veteran and peace activist Pete Shimazaki Doktor; and Melodie Aduja, a former state senator who co-chairs the Hawaii Democratic Party’s environmental caucus.

“I think we need to go back and ask who is the rightful owner to the land?” Kahaulelio said in a statement. “It is the kingdom of Hawaii whose land and water the United States military continues to discreetly destroy and desecrate.”

Capt. Eric Morgan, Commanding Officer of Naval Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP) Fleet Logistics Center (FLC) Pearl Harbor, briefed Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility during a September 2018 visit.
The Navy says its Red Hill fuel facility is a critical strategic asset for military operations on Oahu. U.S. Navy

The Navy’s underground tanks sit above an aquifer that provides drinking water to hundreds of thousands of residents from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai. Fuel hasn’t been detected in Honolulu’s drinking water but ingredients of fuel have been identified in the soil and groundwater. The tanks and its pipeline system have experienced numerous leaks over the years, including a 27,000-gallon release in 2014 and a 1,600-gallon release from a burst pipe in May.

Despite the leaks and years of community concern, the Navy maintains it can operate the facility safely.

The Hawaii Department of Health is currently weighing whether to issue the Navy a permit to continue operating the facility for the next five years. The Sierra Club of Hawaii and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply have both contested the Navy’s application, and their contested case is ongoing.

Wai Ola Alliance is engaged in a parallel fight but is using a different strategy, according to member John Miller. The group said if the Navy declines to negotiate with its members, it intends to file a complaint within 90 days in federal court under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, a federal law that allows the Environmental Protection Agency to control hazardous waste and underground tanks storing petroleum.

The Navy has stated that it intends to invent some kind of secondary containment solution for its tanks or will decommission them by 2045 – years past the deadlines handed down by state and federal regulators.

Wai Ola Alliance wants a faster response. It seeks to “immediately address the continuous imminent threat of a catastrophic failure” with the installation of tank liners, replacement of pipes, and installation of a fuel leak detection system while longer-term solutions are negotiated between the Navy, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and the Hawaii Department of Health.

“Red Hill has released fuel into the environment in the past, did so just months ago, and will continue to do so in the future,” the intent to sue notice states. “The Navy has been aware of and on notice for decades that the Facility’s tanks (and associated infrastructure, e.g., pipelines) are antiquated, corroding, leaking, improperly operated and maintained, and at risk of catastrophic failure. Immediate action is required.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Sycamore Law, Inc., a California-based firm that focuses on environmental litigation, and the local law firm of former Hawaii County councilwoman Margaret Wille.

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