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Health department upholds order requiring Navy to drain Red Hill fuel 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)

HONOLULU — The Hawaiʻi Department of Health on Monday upheld the state's order requiring the Navy to drain the Red Hill fuel tanks after oil leaked from the aging facility and contaminated Pearl Harbor's tap water.

Marian Tsuji, the department's deputy director, on Monday said she agreed with the conclusions of an official appointed by the department to review the facts of the case. She said she would adopt the official's proposed findings as final, though would fix a typographical error.

The Navy is reviewing the decision, said Cmdr. Reann Mommsen, a spokesperson for the Navy Office of Information in Washington.

The Navy has 30 days to appeal the order to the Hawaiʻi Circuit Court. It will remain in effect unless stayed by a court.

Earthjustice and the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi commended the health department's decision.

"The Navy technically can appeal the Department of Health's decision, but now is not the time for delay tactics," David Henkin, an attorney with Earthjustice, said in a statement. Henkin represented the Sierra Club in the contested case hearing.

"The threat to Oʻahu's irreplaceable drinking water supply is far too dire for lawyers' games," he said.

The department's hearings officer for the case, Deputy Attorney General David Day, concluded the tanks were a “ticking time bomb” that threaten the water supply on Oʻahu.

He said they posed “an imminent threat to human health and safety or the environment” and agreed with the governor's order to defuel the tanks.

The Navy objected to Day's findings last week, saying he used an “overbroad” interpretation of the Department of Health’s emergency authority to regulate underground fuel storage tanks. The Navy argued the tanks didn't currently pose an “imminent” threat.

DOH Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathleen Ho said Monday the Navy should stop fighting the order.

"This decision is good news for all of us. It is a step toward protecting the clean water we drink every day. It is a step toward protecting the environment from irreparable harm," she said. "We call upon the Navy to comply with the order without further attempts to delay. This of course includes removing fuel from the Red Hill storage tank facility."

The emergency order was first handed down on Dec. 6 by the DOH and the governor as reports rolled in about families sickened by petroleum-laced water in areas around Joint Base Pearl-Harbor Hickam.

The emergency order requires the Navy to:

  • Immediately suspend operations, including fuel transfers, at Red Hill.
  • Install a drinking water treatment system to ensure the water system conforms to federal and state regulations.
  • Submit a work plan and schedule within 30 days to assess the system integrity to safely defuel the tanks — and upon DOH’s approval, make necessary corrective actions.
  • Within 30 days of completion of required corrective actions, remove fuel from the Red Hill facility.

Read Marian Tsuji's final decision below or click here to open a new tab.

Read the full emergency order below or click here to open a new tab.

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Scott Kim is a news editor at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Contact him at
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