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Citizens’ group to file lawsuit against Navy to ensure safe defueling process

Navy Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility
Shannon Haney/Naval Supply Systems Command Fle
/
U.S. Navy
(Jan. 26, 2018) A tunnel inside of the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility. (U.S. Navy Photo/Released)

A new citizens’ group is preparing a lawsuit against the Navy over its Red Hill fuel storage facility.

The Wai Ola Alliance wants to ensure the fuel tanks are emptied safely and never used again.

The lawsuit alleges that the Navy is endangering the public and the environment with its operations at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility near Pearl Harbor. It alleges the Navy is violating federal laws that govern resource conservation and recovery.

At a U.S. House Armed Services subcommittee meeting earlier this week, the Navy assured Hawaiʻiʻ s Congressmen Kai Kahele and Ed Case that it will comply with an emergency state order that calls for defueling the facility.

But the Navy stopped short of saying it would not pursue further legal action against the order.

"Given their behavior and their response thus far, even as they continue with the defueling, we should be prepared for the Navy to continue to fight the order in order to keep Red Hill in place," said WOA Attorney Tim Vandeveer.

Vandeveer says their lawsuit seeks to establish another layer of protections and mandates through the federal courts.

"We certainly support the governor's efforts, we support Sierra Club's efforts and think the DOH is moving in the right direction. But the order leaves a lot of questions and the Navy hasn't answered many of those questions," he told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Now that the Navy has agreed to defuel Red Hill, it is required to deliver a work plan and implementation schedule to the state by Feb. 2.

The WOA suit, which is set to be filed in February, seeks a court-ordered defueling timeline and permanent decommissioning of the fuel tanks.

"We need to ask them: What is your plan in case an entire tank were to blow?" said Margaret Wille, the principal in the law firm representing WOA. "And I think in a way they can't do that because there isn't an answer. In the consent decree, they were asked to give sort of an assessment and their assessment was that there's a 30% chance of that full catastrophic disaster occurring."

In 2019, the Navy released a third-party report that found a 27.6% chance that 1,000 to 30,000 gallons of fuel could leak from the storage tanks each year.

The Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi has said at least 180,000 gallons of fuel have leaked from the Red Hill tanks since 1943 — when initial construction was completed.

Vandeveer says one problem with the state’s emergency order is that it allows the Navy to resume operations at the facility if it meets certain Department of Health safety guidelines.

"The removal and relocation of that fuel storage facility, that's not in the governor's order," Vandeveer said. "And that's a very important piece of this whole puzzle because it's one thing to defuel them and it's really important to take that threat away."

"But the threat of further catastrophe at Red Hill would be right back in our face again if the Navy was allowed to put fuel back at some point in the future," he added.

At this week’s congressional hearing, Navy officials told lawmakers that several studies are pending on the extent of the problem and another third-party study is looking at how to restore operations at both the affected Red Hill shaft and the storage depot.

Rear Adm. Blake Converse, deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said a judge advocate general's report is expected on Jan. 14, with details on the most recent spill, which leaked at least 14,000 gallons of jet fuel in November.

Noe Tanigawa covers art, culture and ideas for Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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