Navy site that leaked fuel into water system a ‘time bomb’ that must be emptied, Hawaii official says

A salvage unit inspects a water well near Pearl Harbor. (Mass Communication Spec. 2nd Class Aja Bleu/U.S. Navy/AP)

The fuel storage facility at the heart of the water contamination fiasco at Pearl Harbor is a “ticking time bomb” that the U.S. military is unable to manage, David Day, Hawaii’s deputy attorney general, said Monday, upholding a state emergency order compelling the Navy to empty massive storage tanks and make needed repairs.

A November leak of 14,000 gallons of jet fuel at the long-troubled Red Hill underground fuel-storage facility contaminated a Navy-operated well, sickening scores of people and driving about 3,500 military families from their homes.

The Hawaii Department of Health on Dec. 6 ordered the Navy to suspend operations at Red Hill, which officials have described as the most important fuel depot in the Pacific. The Navy fought the order, saying in testimony last week that its decision to pause operations, rush water-filtration systems to the island and investigate the leak was an adequate response.

Day dismissed the Navy’s appeal in a court filing, saying after two days of testimony from military leaders, state officials and environmental advocates that the Navy “lacks the ability to control the substantial risks” at Red Hill and suggested the issues there are deeper than the military has disclosed.

“The evidence shows that the Red Hill Facility is simply too old, too poorly designed, too difficult to maintain, too difficult to inspect, along with being too large to prevent future releases,” Day wrote in his recommendation to uphold the order in full.

Military families say they were ill months before jet-fuel leak brought scrutiny to Pearl Harbor’s tap water

Pearl Harbor’s strategic location and the storage capacity of 250 million gallons makes Red Hill an “incredibly important” linchpin fuel operation for the Pacific region that serves every military service branch, a defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. The facility, which serves the National Guard and has the ability to fuel state emergency response efforts, would be a vital strategic reserve in conflict, officials have said.

The Navy and other parties have until the end of Wednesday to submit exceptions or objections, the Health Department said. Those would be considered during the agency’s final decision about the order.

“We are aware of the proposed decision and have no further statement at this time,” Rear Adm. Charles Brown, a Navy spokesman, said in a statement.

It is unclear how the Navy would readjust its fuel operations if the tanks were emptied, but a disruption is poised to cause some logistical headaches, said Chris Dougherty, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.

“Removing 250 million gallons’ worth of secure underground storage would exacerbate an already limited supply,” he said. “They’d have to find some other way to store the vast quantities of fuel needed to support operations through the Pacific.”

Jamie Williams stands on one of the access roads to Red Hill in Honolulu, on Dec. 11, 2021. Her home sits adjacent to the site. (Marie Eriel Hobro for The Washington Post)

The Navy’s water system serves about 93,000 people at and near Pearl Harbor. The Red Hill water shaft, the site of the November contamination, is near the huge facility of 20 undergroundsteel fuel tanks encased in concrete, each about 20 stories tall. The tanks were carved into the basalt rock after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, following concerns that aboveground fuel depots would be targets for subsequent strikes.

Red Hill was chosen in part to allow gravity to pipe the fuel down to piers and other holding tanks, but it was also constructed about 100 feet above Oahu’s sole drinking-water aquifer. Leaks and contamination issues have plagued the facility for years, culminating in a November spill that percolated into a well used by military families and civilians near the base.

Families began reporting foul odors from water taps and symptoms like vomiting, headaches and dizziness on Nov. 28. Nearly a dozen families told The Washington Post that they had experienced similar symptoms as early as spring, leading to suspicions that there was more extensive contamination than the Navy has disclosed.

Capt. James Meyer, commanding officer of Naval Facilities Hawaii, testified in a hearing on the emergency order last week that his “working theory” is a fuel leak from May eventually migrated into access tunnels and fire-suppression lines, prompting the November spill into the water shaft. The Navy said initially that the leak amounted to about 1,600 gallons of jet fuel, but an internal review obtained by The Post showed one fuel tank emptied as much as 473 barrels — roughly 19,000 gallons — in less than a minute.

Navy spokeswoman Lydia Robertson declined to discuss the link between the incidents, saying the matter is under investigation.

Day said problems at Red Hill threaten more than the Navy water supply, given the aquifer’s role serving Oahu. The 76 spills since World War II, resulting in leaks of nearly 200,000 gallons of fuel, probably constitute an undercount, he wrote, adding the Navy’s oversight has failed to keep up with the aging infrastructure.

The tanks, he said, “have a serious corrosion problem that the Navy will be unable to address over time.”

In the hearing, senior Navy official James Balocki played down the issue, denying the contamination was a crisis and claiming he wasn’t aware of anyone who was sickened by the water.

His comments — which came after military families testified they were ill from the water — drew a rebuke from Rep. Kaiali’i Kahele (D-Hawaii), and led to an apology from the Navy.

“Jim fully appreciates the pain his words have caused, and he regrets that he did not reflect empathy or understanding for the substantial impact of this situation on both people and the environment,” Navy assistant secretary Meredith Berger wrote in a Dec. 24 response to Kahele.

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By Alex HortonAlex Horton is a national security reporter for The Washington Post, where he covers the U.S. military. He joined The Post’s general assignment desk in 2017 from Stars and Stripes, and served in Iraq as an Army infantryman.  Twitter

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