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Navy says it will comply with state order to remove fuel from Red Hill

navy red hill fuel storage facility tunnel pipelines
Petty Officer 1st Class Luke J M/Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet
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Digital
(Dec. 23, 2021) – Rear Adm. John Korka, Commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command (NAVFAC), and Chief of Civil Engineers, leads Navy and civilian water quality personnel through the tunnels of the Red Hill fuel storage facility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Luke McCall)

The U.S. Navy will comply with Hawaiʻi's order to remove fuel from a massive underground storage tank facility near Pearl Harbor blamed for contaminating drinking water, officials said Tuesday.

The Navy is making preparations to defuel the facility, Rear Adm. Blake Converse said during a U.S. House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness hearing.

"The Navy caused this problem. We own it and we're going to fix it," Converse told members of Congress. "Nothing is more important than the health, safety and wellbeing of our families, our military residents, our neighbors and the communities that we call home."

The Navy’s water system serves some 93,000 people in residential homes, offices, elementary schools and businesses in and around Pearl Harbor.

Starting in late November, about 1,000 people complained that their tap water smelled like fuel, or reported physical ailments such as nausea and rashes after ingesting it.

Capt. Michael McGinnis, U.S. Pacific Fleet surgeon, said Navy medical teams have screened over 5,900 patients.

"Patient symptoms were consistent with an acute environmental exposure event — patient symptoms consistent with the following: nausea, vomiting, headache, diarrhea, skin or eye irritation. Once patients were removed from the water source, the symptoms rapidly resolved," McGinnis told members of Congress.

After petroleum was detected in a drinking well, Hawaiʻi ordered the Navy to drain fuel from the tanks to protect Oʻahu's drinking water.

The Navy contested the order, prompting a December hearing before a deputy state attorney general. The hearings officer concluded the tanks were a "ticking time bomb” and that the order needed to be upheld.

Blake Converse Navy red hill hearing 011122
U.S. House Armed Services Committee/Youtube
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Rear Admiral Blake Converse, Deputy Commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, speaks at a U.S. House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness hearing on Jan. 11, 2022.

Navy officials believe a fuel leak in November inside an access tunnel contaminated one of its wells and the tap water. However, officials are also investigating any linkage to a fuel leak around May 6, 2021, Converse said Tuesday.

"That holistic investigation of the fuel spills and the water contamination will be submitted to U.S. Pacific Fleet on or about Jan. 14," he said.

Converse said Adm. Samuel Paparo, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, internally directed compliance with the order on Jan. 7.

When asked if the Navy may pursue a legal challenge to the order in the future, Converse said, "The decision on whether to contest the order has to take into account the strategic importance of Red Hill, the alternatives, and a number of factors that are associated with the combatant commanders' responsibilities."

"Ultimately, the Secretary of the Navy and Office of the Secretary of Defense will have to make a decision on that. I am not a part of that decision making and I don't have any information right now," Converse said.

Earthjustice and the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi said they viewed the compliance announcement with "cautious optimism."

“This is encouraging, but words are one thing, and actions are another,” said David Henkin, the Earthjustice attorney who represented the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi in the contested case hearing. “There are crucial deadlines under the order that must be met in the coming weeks."

Under terms of the mandate, the Navy has until Feb. 2 to have a third party conduct a study on how to safely defuel the Red Hill tanks.

“It is our full expectation that the Navy will follow the law by complying with the final order,” said Katie Arita-Chang, a spokesperson for the Hawaiʻi Department of Health.

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 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.

Navy officials also clarified the timeline for when displaced residents of military housing might be able to return, targeting late January to mid-February. They said the cleanup and resident support efforts have cost well over $250 million so far.

The Red Hill facility holds 20 giant underground tanks built into the side of a mountain during World War II. Each tank is roughly the height of a 25-story building. Collectively, they can hold up to 250 million gallons (946 million liters) of fuel, though two of the tanks are now empty.

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

The Associated Press reporter Jennifer Sinco Kelleher contributed to this story.

The Associated Press is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering, supplying a steady stream of news to its members, international subscribers and commercial customers. Founded in 1846, AP is neither privately owned nor government-funded; instead, it's a not-for-profit news cooperative owned by its American newspaper and broadcast members.
Sophia McCullough is HPR's digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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