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Navy says operator error was the cause of a May fuel leak from the Red Hill storage facility

Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons
(Aug. 23, 2007) - then-Secretary of the Navy the Honorable Dr. Donald C. Winter tours the Navy Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility to get a first-hand look at the condition of the tanks. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shawn P. Eklund

The U.S. Navy says operator error was the main cause of a fuel leak from the Red Hill storage facility on Oʻahu in May. Navy officials maintain the leak did not contaminate the island’s drinking water.

The Navy has released documents related to its investigation of the jet fuel leak of about 1,600 gallons at the Red Hill facility. According to the report, the leak occurred because an operator did not close pipeline valves in the proper sequence before starting a fuel transfer.

Leslie Nelson
Wikipedia via Creative Commons

Capt. Gordie Meyer, the commanding officer of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command for Hawaiʻi, says all but about 36 gallons of the fuel were recovered, and none of it reached the aquifer, from which Oʻahu gets its drinking water.

"And so during this time frame we’ve done some increased monitoring across Red Hill above and beyond what we normally do to make sure there was no impact to the aquifer and our ongoing analysis and sampling of the aquifer indicate there are no issues and concerns with the aquifer and the water remains safe to drink," Meyer said.

The Navy says the tanks holding the jet fuel are sound, and the only damage was to the pipeline. Repairs should be completed by next June.

Capt. Bert Hornyak, the commanding officer of the Fleet Logistics Center at Pearl Harbor, says new protocols will prevent such a leak from happening again.

There will now be two operators monitoring the pipelines instead of one, and the alert system has been set to a higher level of sensitivity so that operators are notified more quickly of any problems.

"The out of balance alarms as well as the pressure indicating transmitters, those settings, although they were set to industry standards, we have determined and realized through the course of this event that they were set too high, so we have adjusted those so that our operators will receive appropriate indications and warnings should a situation like this present itself again," Hornyak told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Listen to the complete interview with Capts. Gordie Meyer and Bert Hornyak from The Conversation on Oct. 27, 2021.

Navy Capts. Gordie Meyer and Bert Hornyak - Oct. 27, 2021
The Conversation

In a related issue, the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi is taking the Hawaiʻi Department of Health to court for failing to release documents about fuel leaks at Pearl Harbor that it believes could affect its contested case hearing with the Navy over its operating permit.

They are some of the same reports HPR requested this summer after learning of the spills. The state Attorney General’s office says it is working to make them available but could not say when that would happen.

The Navy objected to their release, citing national security issues.

"Especially given some of the emails that Civil Beat reported on, indicating that the Navy was more concerned about optics than full disclosure about what’s going on at Red Hill — I think that just amplifies that folks already have about the almost existential threat that these 80-year-old underground fuel storage tanks may pose to Oʻahu residents," said Wayne Tanaka, executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi.

Tanaka says the documents will be critical in understanding whether the Navy can monitor and respond to fuel leaks that could endanger the health of tens of thousands on Oʻahu by contaminating drinking water.

The Red Hill storage tanks sit about 100 feet above the aquifer that serves residents from Halawa to Maunalua, he said.

The Navy is currently seeking a new five-year permit to operate the fuel storage facility at Red Hill, which must be granted by the state Department of Health. The latest meeting of the DOH's Fuel Tank Advisory Committee took place Thursday under the shadow of negative publicity surrounding the storage facility.

During the committee meeting, Board of Water Supply Manager Ernest Lau repeatedly warned of the dangers of jet fuel seeping into the island’s aquifer.

"The Board of Water Supply remains extremely concerned about the situation. Protection of our drinking water resources, I know, is important to both the Navy and to the BWS. Our Halawa shaft is one of our largest sources, so if we had to shut that off, the consequences to the people of Honolulu all the way out to Hawaiʻi Kai will be very dire," Lau said.

More than a dozen others submitted testimony, nearly every one of them questioning the Navy’s ability to keep Oʻahu’s water supply safe. Many suggested the facility should be shut down, and a new one built elsewhere.

Navy Capt. Meyer told the committee that they are capable of safely maintaining the Red Hill facility.

"We don’t have to sacrifice one for the other. We can do both. We can protect the environment, protect the people of Hawaiʻi, and we can protect our nation and the Department of Defense with our strategic imperatives. And so we can do those things through the Red Hill working initiatives that we are doing. So it’s not a matter of one or the other," Meyer told the committee.

Read the Navy's report on the May 6 fuel leak below or click here.

Read the Navy's Red Hill mitigations report below or click here.

Scott Kim was a news editor at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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