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The Sierra Club wants transparency, emails, answers about recent Navy fuel leaks and Red Hill

Wayna Tanaka red hill.jpg
Sierra Club Of Hawaiʻi | US Navy Region Hawaii
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Wayne Tanaka (left) and the Navy's Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility (right)

The Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi has filed a public records complaint with the state Department of Health after learning of an email trail it believes could change the outcome of a contested case hearing for the U.S. Navy’s permit to operate the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility.

The massive tanks fuel the U.S. Pacific Fleet and are said to be vital to regional security. But threats to Oʻahu’s drinking water and a recent Honolulu Civil Beat story about emails that seem to indicate the Navy withheld fuel leak information, or misled the health department during the case hearing, have put pressure on the Navy to release information about the spills at Red Hill and at Pearl Harbor.

"In a Jan. 21 email, a Navy captain said he was worried about the optics," Civil Beat reporter Christina Jedra wrote. "The records show that the Navy had enough evidence to conclude the leak was active as early as January according to state Department of Health standards, but officials waited months to report it to the department amid concerns it would hamper its ability to secure a state permit."

The DOH Fuel Tank Advisory Committee is set to meet Thursday for the first time since the state delayed a decision on the permit. Red Hill's 20 tanks each have a 12.5 million-gallon capacity. They sit about 100 feet above Oʻahu’s drinking water aquifer.

The Department of Health has 20 days to respond to the Sierra Club's complaint.

Here’s the Sierra Club’s executive director Wayne Tanaka, speaking to The Conversation's Catherine Cruz, about the fuel tanks — and the importance of Hawaiʻi's Sole Source Aquifer.

Wayne Tanaka: I'm actually very disappointed that we now have to litigate to get these public records. We originally requested public records back in July when Hawaiʻi Public Radio first reported about the leak. The health department has failed to respond to our request — they did not meet the deadlines. We think that the information that we are seeking is going to be critical to understand whether, and how, the Navy can monitor and respond to fuel leaks connected with its Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility — which the Department of Health has itself recognized as inherently dangerous. And so we think this is a matter of public concern for anyone and including the Sierra Club — but pretty much anyone who lives in Hawaiʻi, who is served by this aquifer over which the Red Hill fuel tanks sit, including businesses, including our financial district, Waikiki, pretty much everyone from Halawa to Maunalua.

Catherine Cruz: Let's take a step back for our listeners, you folks asked for a contested case hearing over the permits for the military to keep operating at Red Hill.

Tanaka: Our concerns are tied with the proposed maintenance of the underground fuel storage tanks on Red Hill. There was a contested case hearing in January, where the Department of Health basically took evidence, information from the Sierra Club, from its own environmental health administration, from the Board of Water Supply, and the Navy to determine whether a permit should be issued — to allow the Navy to continue maintaining, you know, 100-plus million gallons of fuel above our Sole Source Aquifer, and whether or not there should be any conditions, or protections incorporated into the permit. This fuel leak now raises the question as to whether the Navy accurately included the fuel lines of issue within the scope of its permit, which we believe it should have. But we really need these documents to be able to make that case, to determine to what extent the Department of Health should have considered, you know, this associated infrastructure.

Hawaiʻi Public Radio did put in our own open records request earlier this summer. The Department of Health said that they couldn't release it because the military was saying this was "national security interest." Just recently, the state Attorney General's office said that they were reconsidering it and were trying to get some of that information released to us. But you're just trying to figure out if the leaks in Pearl Harbor are related to the Red Hill system?

Yes, there are certainly significant indications that they are. But again, yes, we need to get those documents and we've had similar responses from the Department of Health with regards to our open records request. But they haven't pointed to a legal justification for denying our requests or failing to meet the statutory deadline.

There is this meeting coming up, the advisory committee meeting on Thursday, and I think folks were expecting some fireworks because this permit has now been delayed for 30 days while the Department of Health tries to figure out if we need to reopen that hearing.

Absolutely. And again, and especially, you know, given some of the emails that Civil Beat reported on, indicating that the Navy was more concerned about optics than full disclosure about what's going on at Red Hill. I think that just amplifies the concerns that folks already have about the almost existential threat that these 80-year-old underground fuel storage tanks may pose to Oʻahu residents.

Navy Red Hill fuel storage tank Department of Health
Hawaii Department of Health
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Do we have a handle on when the Department of Health will decide if they reopen up this hearing?

So the contested case hearing exceptions deadline was extended to November for one month. So at that point, probably sometime before that deadline, there'll be a motion to reopen and then there'll be some discussion about the scope of the reopening — so exactly what will be examined, or reexamined, once this contested case gets returned to the hearings officer. So sometime in November.

You talked about conditions possibly attached to a permit — what would you like to see?

Ultimately, we don't think it's safe to store well-over 100 million gallons of petroleum fuel literally 100 feet above our Sole Source Aquifer, which serves maybe about 400,000 residents on Oʻahu, not counting tourists. To the extent that a permit is issued, I think we'd want the strongest conditions possible, including conditions requiring the decommissioning of a few tanks to the extent they can expedite the removal or relocation of the tanks.

Have you had any communication with the Board of Water Supply on this issue?

Yes, we are equally concerned about the inherent dangers that the fuel tanks pose to our water supply. And so they have, along with us, been advocating in the contested case for the removal of the tanks — or minimally, a tank within a tank alternative where the Navy would essentially construct a slightly smaller tank within the existing tanks that can hold the fuel and then provide that additional level of containment, including with materials that are appropriate, such as stainless steel, that won't rust like the current tanks are doing.

I think the Sierra Club has wanted the facility to be shut down and built somewhere else. It's not so easy to do that — and in lieu of that, then just better safeguards to make sure that fuel doesn't leach out?

I just emphasize that this affects potentially, you know, our very way of life on this island and potentially, like across the islands. Again, we have some of the purest water in the world and to risk losing that is going to impact everyone that drinks water, including tourists, including businesses, including the financial district, including also I think our national security. We basically have a whole bunch of eggs in one basket that is literally rusting away. And the impacts that would have on our regional security, I think would be also tremendous and also a great concern for folks who do believe that we need a strong military presence.

Tune into The Conversation on Wednesday at 11 a.m. to hear from Navy representatives about the status of the Red Hill investigations. This interview aired on The Conversation on Oct. 26, 2021.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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