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Hawaiʻi congressional delegation 'particularly troubled' by Navy fuel leaks, connection to Red Hill

In this Dec. 4, 2019, file photo, a U.S. naval ship can be seen from Pearl Harbor National Memorial in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones, File)
AP Photo/Caleb Jones
Associated Press
In this Dec. 4, 2019, file photo, a U.S. naval ship can be seen from Pearl Harbor National Memorial in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones, File)

Hawaiʻi's congressional delegation issued a letter Tuesday to the Navy calling for more transparency surrounding its handling of fuel leaks at Pearl Harbor, and the Red Hill Fuel Storage Facility.

In the letter to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, the congressional delegation said, "We are particularly troubled about reports of a fuel leak near Hotel Pier at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam (JBPHH) that occurred in March 2020 and allegations that the Navy was not appropriately forthcoming about the source and scale of the fuel leak with state regulators, federal officials, and the public—including our offices.

"These recent incidents, including the manner in which the Navy has responded to them and its lack of transparency with the public, raise questions about the seriousness with which the Navy takes its responsibility to communicate clearly with the public about matters concerning health and safety. The people of Hawaii deserve better from the Navy."

The delegation included a list of questions, including one inquiring about a pipeline linking Pearl Harbor to the Red Hill fuel storage facility — which can hold millions of gallons of fuel. Leaks have occurred there over its nearly 80-year history.

"What evidence, if any, is there that Navy officials withheld information about the Hotel Pier leak that would have been material to the Hawaiʻi Department of Health’s consideration to renew the Red Hill operating permit?" the delegation asked in the letter.

The Navy is currently petitioning the state for a new 5-year permit to operate the facility, which must be granted by the state Department of Health.

U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie K. Hirono, and Reps. Ed Case and Kaialiʻi Kahele are requesting "timely and thorough answers" to their questions, as well as a meeting with Navy representatives no later than Dec. 3.

The congressional delegation said Wednesday they were also asking the Department of Defense's inspector general to investigate whether the Navy properly investigated and notified state authorities about the fuel leak at Pearl Harbor.

This comes as the state announced it was fining the Navy more than $325,000 for operations and maintenance violations at Red Hill.

The fines also came one day after the Navy said operator error caused it to release 1,618 gallons (6,125 liters) of jet fuel from a pipeline at the Red Hill fuel tank storage facility in May.

"The DOH mission is to protect human health in the environment. And like our congressional delegation, the DOH is also concerned about the timeliness of the Navy's reporting to the DOH. So we look forward actually to receiving the information that the congressional delegation has called on the Navy to provide," said DOH Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathleen Ho.

The Red Hill facility holds 20 underground fuel storage tanks near Pearl Harbor, providing the Navy with a crucial fuel reserve in the Pacific.

But the tanks, which date to World War II and are each the equivalent of about 25 stories tall, also sit above an aquifer that supplies a quarter of the water consumed in urban Honolulu.

Capt. Gordie Meyer, the commanding officer of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command for Hawaiʻi, told Hawaiʻi Public Radio all but about 36 gallons of fuel were recovered after the May leak, and none of it reached the aquifer.

The Navy said there will now be two operators monitoring the pipelines instead of one, and the alert system has been set to a higher level of sensitivity so that operators are notified more quickly of any problems.

Leslie Nelson
Wikipedia via Creative Commons

Hawaiʻi Public Radio first reported on leaks this summer and filed the first open records request for more information in July. The Department of Health said they couldn't release it because the military claimed it was a "national security interest." Following that, HPR reached out to lawmakers for help about four months ago.

The state Attorney General’s office has since said it is working with the military to redact sensitive information.

Read the full letter from the Hawaiʻi congressional delegation — U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie K. Hirono, and Reps. Ed Case and Kaialiʻi Kahele — to the U.S. Navy in the box below or click here.

This segment aired on The Conversation on Nov. 2, 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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