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Hawaiʻi official agrees Navy must remove fuel from Red Hill tanks

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US Navy Region Hawaii
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Calling the Red Hill fuel storage facility “a metaphorical ticking timebomb,” a state hearings officer recommended Monday that the Navy should comply with the state order that, among other things, requires the removal of millions of gallons of fuel from its tanks.

David Day led two days of hearings for the Hawaiʻi Department of Health last week before making his recommendation. The Navy had appealed an earlier order from Gov. David Ige to defuel the tanks.

“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,” wrote Day in his recommendation.

The state Department of Health, the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply argued for the state’s mandate to be carried out. The Navy and those parties have until Wednesday at 5 p.m. to submit objections to the recommendation.

Department of Health Deputy Director Marian Tsuji will consider Day’s recommendation when making a final decision. She’ll have 30 days to do that.

The state filed the emergency order on Dec. 6 in response to the contamination of the Navy’s water system for the area around Joint Base Pearl-Harbor-Hickam. The leak of jet fuel sickened hundreds of residents, mainly living in military housing.

More than 3,000 military families have had to move to hotels or other alternative housing for the past several weeks because they have been unable to use the water in their homes.

During the hearing, the Navy made the case that the order should not be enforced because of the actions it took to address the situation.

One of the stipulations is that the Navy must conduct a study to determine how to safely remove the fuel from Red Hill — and carry that out 30 days after the study is completed.

The order does allow the Navy to petition to continue to use the facility after it conducts tests on its integrity and fixes the problems that have led to numerous fuel leaks over the years.

“We are aware of the proposed decision and have no further statement at this time,” said Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, the Navy's chief of information.

Day included his recommendations in a 32-page report that said the Red Hill facility poses “an imminent threat to human health and safety or the environment.”

He said there have been at least 76 fuel-releasing incidents involving nearly 200,000 gallons (757,082 liters) since the tanks were built in the early 1940s.

The evidence presented at the hearing indicated more releases of fuel are “basically inevitable,” he said.

During the hearing, he said, the Navy offered a “working theory” regarding how its water system became contaminated last month. That theory posited that jet fuel released during the refilling of Tank 20 on May 6 got into the facility's fire suppression system. This fire suppression system then leaked the liquid in November, according to the theory.

“The Navy did not state with any exacting reliability a full picture of what happened, or why and how the release occurred," Day wrote.

He said the November release demonstrated that “the problems within the Red Hill Facility, as it is currently situated, are beyond the Navy's ability to control.”

Day wrote the tanks threaten more than the Navy's own water system, noting the Navy and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply share the aquifer that sits under the fuel tanks.

This aquifer, Day said, supplies 77% of Oʻahu's overall water supply. The island has no alternative drinking water source, or combination of sources, that could supply 50% or more of Honolulu's drinking water, he said.

Board of Water Supply comments on Red Hill hearing decision - Dec. 29, 2021

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply agreed with Day’s decision — and said it hopes the Navy will follow.

BWS Manager and Chief Engineer Ernest "Ernie" Lau said the Navy should immediately comply if they have any hope of rebuilding the trust they lost from the community.

"If the Navy does contest the proposed decisions in order of the hearing officer, we are gonna be there to stay with this fight — this fight for the protection of our water resources and for our community, the Board of Water Supply will not give up," Lau said.

"We are in this for the long haul. We’ve been in for eight years, we’ll not stop. I’m not trying to threaten the Navy, but understand that you are going to need to deal with us whether you like it or not. I would ask the Navy to just wake up to understand that this is an extremely serious situation and to move that fuel immediately," he continued.

Read the full decision from hearings officer David Day below or click here to open a new tab.

Audrey McAvoy of The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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