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EPA to eye Red Hill fuel tank operations after contaminated water crisis

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan Red Hill Navy
Caleb Jones/AP
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, left, discusses the contamination of Pearl Harbor's water system by the Navy's Red Hill fuel tank facility as EPA Regional Administrator Martha Guzman, right, listens at a news conference in Honolulu, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)

HONOLULU — The top official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday an upcoming inspection of a Navy fuel tank facility that leaked petroleum into Pearl Harbor's tap water will look at whether the tank farm was properly operated.

“We’re going to ... really look very closely at whether or not the facility has operated within the guidelines of the law. And if it hasn’t, then we will have to make some corrections there,” Michael S. Regan, the EPA's administrator, told reporters at a news conference.

The investigation will determine whether the facility operated in accordance with two federal laws: the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Regan was in Hawaiʻi for a two-day visit to see the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility and meet officials about the water contamination crisis.

The EPA’s inspection of the Red Hill tank facility is scheduled to begin Monday.

“At the end of the day, no family should have to question the quality of their drinking water," Regan said.

Hawaiʻi's Department of Health has ordered the Navy to drain fuel from the tanks, which were built nearly 80 years ago into the side of a mountain to protect them from enemy attack.

The Navy has appealed that order to give it time to develop alternative solutions for storing the fuel. It has also hired a firm to help it carry out the defueling order.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono says the Navy is now preparing to defuel Red Hill.

"While the Navy, through the Department of Justice, appealed the state’s executive order, that appeal is not going anywhere. They’re not proceeding with it," she said. "Meanwhile, the Navy is proceeding to comply with a part of the order, among others, that requires defueling of the tanks."

"That’s where a lot of the focus should be, and the money that is gonna be required to safely defuel these tanks. This is where the EPA, with their expertise, is also going to come into play," Hirono said.

Martha Guzman, the agency’s regional administrator, indicated she could understand those who blame the EPA for the crisis because its regulatory work didn’t prevent it from happening.

“Anyone who has been impacted by this has all validity to feel that way, first and foremost,” Guzman said.

But she said the EPA had been monitoring the groundwater in the aquifer for fuel contamination while the current crisis was precipitated by fuel leaking directly into the Navy’s Red Hill well from a drain that officials didn’t even know existed.

“This incident was not forecasted. The scenario of direct oil into the shaft is nothing we could have ever imagined at that time,” she said. “This is had a level of direct contamination, which was not anticipated.”

Nearly 6,000 people, mostly those living in military housing at or near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, got sick late last year after petroleum-laced water came pouring out of their taps. People sought treatment for nausea, headaches, rashes and other ailments.

Thousands of people have been living in hotels while the Navy tries to clear petroleum out of the water system’s pipes.

The Navy isn’t sure what caused the contamination but it has been investigating a theory that jet fuel spilled when a pipe ruptured in May and got into a fire suppression system drain line. It believes fuel then may have leaked from this drain line into the Navy drinking water well. It suspects oil-contaminated water was then pumped from this well into the Navy’s water system.

The EPA has asked the state Department of Health to join its investigation. It is unclear how long the investigation will take.

The Associated Press reporter Audrey McAvoy contributed to this report.

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