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Hearing starts for Hawaiʻi order to de-fuel Navy tanks

  Navy military Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility tunnel DVIDS
Daniel Mayberry/Naval Supply Systems Command Fle
(July 17, 2020) Fuels director, LCDR Shannon Bencs walks a portion of the 7 miles of tunnels of the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility. (U.S. Navy photo by Daniel Mayberry/Released)

The state Department of Health, Honolulu Board of Water Supply and Sierra Club argued during a hearing Monday that an order should be enforced requiring the Navy to remove millions of gallons of fuel from the Red Hill storage facility on Oʻahu. The Navy says it is addressing the issue of contaminated drinking water in areas around Pearl Harbor, and pushed back against the order.

Local officials testified about past problems including corroding steel tanks, behind-schedule maintenance and tanks that haven’t been inspected in more than 20 years.

On Dec. 6, the state filed an emergency order requiring the Navy to take several steps to deal with the problem of jet fuel in drinking water in the area of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

One stipulation called on the Navy to conduct a study on how to safely remove fuel from storage tanks on Red Hill, then do so within 30 days of completing that analysis.

The Navy contested the order, and the hearing began Monday to determine whether the state or Navy would prevail.

Deputy Attorney General Wade Hargrove, representing the health department, called several department specialists who testified that the Navy has no way of accurately determining the physical integrity of the storage tanks, and where repairs are needed.

The witnesses also testified that the tanks are corroding, which will inevitably lead to more fuel leaks, and that some of the tanks have not been inspected for decades.

The Board of Water Supply, which filed to intervene in the case, called as a witness Dr. David Norfleet, an expert in investigating engineering failures for the oil and gas industry.

"Corrosion will continue to manifest, there’s no way for the Navy to mitigate or prevent that backside corrosion from occurring. And so with that as well as observations that tanks 1 and 19 have been taken out of service, we believe these tanks are entering an end of life phase," Norfleet said.

Norfleet says a report by ABS Consulting, which was contracted by the Navy to assess the integrity of the storage facility in 2018, was too conservative in predicting future fuel leaks.

The report said there is a nearly 28% chance every year of a leak between 1,000 and 30,000 gallons, but Norfleet says the actual figure is probably much higher.

Another intervenor, the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi, called several residents of the affected military housing areas to testify.

Kimberly Charters, who lives in the Aliamanu Military Reservation, says her life was completely upended this past Thanksgiving when she and her husband began feeling ill.

"Just everything, our entire schedule revolves around OK, what time do we need to leave to get to Waikiki so we’re not sitting in traffic and can have a clean shower or where are we going to eat tonight because if we make something at home it takes hours to wash dishes with bottled water," Charters said.

The Navy called as its first witness Deputy Secretary James Balocki who says the Navy has responded properly to address the situation.

"The Navy has taken every action to ensure the health and safety of people, to prevent damage to the environment, and I’m confident those actions were appropriate and timely," Balocki said.

In cross-examination by Board of Water Supply attorney Ella Foley Gannon, Balocki declined to label the situation a crisis.

Gannon: Do you consider the events that have occurred at Red Hill to be a crisis? 
Balocki: Define crisis.
Gannon: I’m using it in a normal sense. Would you describe it as a crisis?
Balocki: An urgent and compelling situation, perhaps – not a crisis.
Gannon: Is contamination in drinking water that supplies the Navy’s and some of the Army’s servicemens’ families, servicewomens’ families a crisis?
Balocki: To the extent that the Army and Navy have provided alternative drinking water to those families, I don’t consider it so.

Navy officials believe a one-time spill of jet fuel inside an access tunnel on Nov. 20 contaminated one of its wells and the tap water. Officials said they don’t believe leaking fuel tanks tainted the water.

The hearing got underway as Hawaiʻi's congressional delegation announced that the Department of Defense inspector general intends to investigate, at the request of the members of Congress.

Navy officials said they are flushing clean water through the overall water system and water systems in all homes. They said they hope to complete that process by Christmas.

Fuel has so far only been detected in the Navy’s water system, which serves 93,000 people. Schools and businesses that receive water from the Navy have also been affected.

All branches of the military use fuel from the tanks, which were built underground into the side of a mountain ridge near Pearl Harbor in the early 1940s.

Scott Kim is a news editor at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Contact him at skim@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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