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BWS Chief Engineer Ernie Lau calls on military to build trust with actions, not rhetoric

Ernest Ernie Lau Honolulu Board of Water Supply 120321
Jason Ubay
/
HPR
FILE - Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernest "Ernie" Lau at a press conference about the contaminated Navy water system on Dec. 3, 2021.

A Navy investigation into the 2021 fuel leaks at the Red Hill underground fuel storage facility revealed that shoddy management and human error caused fuel to leak into Pearl Harbor's tap water, poisoning thousands of people and forcing military families to evacuate their homes for hotels.

Ernie Lau, chief engineer of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, says defueling ought to be prioritized along with investigating the damage to the aquifer. He also called for more data and transparency.

The Navy says it plans to remove fuel from Red Hill by the end of 2024. Lau says the timeframe is "too long" and defueling needs to happen as soon as possible.

“The suggested timeline stands in stark contrast to the repeated assurances from the Navy over the last several years that the Red Hill tanks and pipelines are properly designed, constructed and installed so that each tank can be emptied in less than 24 hours,” Lau said Friday.

Lau joined HPR's The Conversation on Tuesday, July 5 for a live show to discuss Red Hill. Read excerpts from that interview below.

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On the military's transparency surrounding Red Hill

ERNIE LAU: I've been at this for over eight years now. Come January, it'll be nine years. This whole issue of transparency has always been a challenge. They can provide the rhetoric to say that they will be transparent and build trust. But it's really the actions that are not consistent with that rhetoric that demonstrates that they're not being actually transparent, and that there may be more information that's available that could be very valuable in looking at what was the scope and magnitude of the problem, and what we need to do to recover the aquifer from contamination.

On what the Red Hill investigation means for other military facilities

LAU: This report is extremely critical of the operations, that it wasn't being operated very well. And so it kind of raises a question, in my mind, is this problem unique to only Red Hill? Or is it systemic for other critical fuel facilities that the Department of Defense operates across the Pacific and other places? Are they being operated in an environmentally protected manner that will prevent contaminants from being released and damaging valuable resources? In 2010, the Naval Audit Service did an audit of this facility. And it basically concluded that the facility was not being operated in a fashion that was protective of the environment. So this report, yeah, looks really bad. And it is a critical assessment, critical review of this facility. But it's not the first time. I think they've known about these troubles or these problems for many years.

On the role of human error in the 2021 fuel leaks

LAU: One thing that I see as kind of an inherent problem in how the military operates — I probably worked now with at least three different admirals for Navy Region Hawaiʻi — every two or three years they rotate out of there. So the military officers who are in command and responsible, ultimately, they're brand new coming in every two to three years. They need to then get educated on this massive, very complex, very old facility — 79 years old. And can you expect the person to just assimilate that information quickly and be able to operate in a safe and protective manner? So it's really this inherent turnover that is built into how the military operates that creates a lack of understanding or knowledge of the facility and its vulnerabilities, that I think adds to the problems here. I know they're blaming it on human error. But I think the facility itself is beyond its useful life by decades. It should have been retired many years ago, just the age and condition, the facility itself is a clear threat to our water resources. So not only people, but also the infrastructure. So I think there needs to be a critical look at how the military maintains its critical infrastructure.

On information still missing from the Navy report

LAU: There was a news story that was broke last year based on an email that was sent out by the captain who used to be responsible for the facility, who was relieved of command. It was to a whole bunch of admirals and others, disclosing that there were additional pressure surges occurring, I think, in September, that caused concern that the May 6 event might be repeated. So they shut the whole facility down for nine days, while they investigated these pressure transients or these pressure fluctuations in the pipeline. I didn't see that covered in the investigative report. So again, you know, it's probably not just problems that exist at the working level, the civilian workers that operate the facility or the immediate military commanders over that, but the failures also might be higher up the chain of command.

On priority actions moving forward

ERNIE LAU: What's critically important right now is the investigation into the nature and extent of the contamination or damage to the underground aquifer needs to proceed ASAP. It needs to be high priority, almost as high priority as defueling the facility. We’re kind of flying blind right now because of lack of information, real data of what's happening with the aquifer and how the groundwater flows. That investigation needs to be pushed forward aggressively in parallel to the efforts to defuel the facility.

On upgrading Board of Water Supply infrastructure islandwide

Lau: We came up with the plan in 2016. And we're implementing it, replacing more and more of the pipeline infrastructure, but also investing in our water tanks and our pumping stations. So we've increased our capital program to about $170 million a year. And we need to continue to invest in the infrastructure. Because infrastructure, if you don't take care of it, will give you problems in the future. And I think the Red Hill fuel facility is an example... We are looking at rate increases, but we want to keep them at least more smaller, incremental — and steadily increase rates on an incremental basis a little at a time, as opposed to no rate increases for many years and having to do a big catch up. We think that is not as affordable to our customers. So yes, we are looking at the next set of rate increases that we have to do, but we're very mindful of the economic conditions of our community. But we also have to balance that with investing in our infrastructure... The rate study is being done right now. So maybe in the next couple of years, we'll be doing outreach to the community.

His final message to the military

LAU: I would ask that they please stop with the rhetoric and demonstrate by your actions on the fuel facility side and on the aquifer. That will help to, I think, rebuild trust in people. But you need to carry out your words — and quickly.

His final message to Hawaiʻi Public Radio listeners and water users

LAU: I just really appreciate everybody's support on the attention that has been given from the community, from the grassroots level on the Red Hill issue — that has moved the mountain here. So mahalo to everybody. The different environmental organizations, the grassroots organizations, the Kānaka Maoli coming out and saying something and taking a stand, and also our elected officials, we need to be of one mind — and continuing to move forward of one mind.

Click here to listen to the full interview. This interview aired on The Conversation on July 5, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

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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