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Former health director suggests water storage for Red Hill tanks, staying at Kapolei landfill

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US Navy Region Hawaii
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January marks eight years since 27,000 gallons of jet fuel spilled from tanks at the Navy Red Hill fuel storage facility on Oʻahu. No one is sure where it all went but it was a sign that all was not well.

Now, one year after another fuel spill contaminated the Navy's drinking water system, the Defense Department is in the process of closing and defueling the facility. Efforts to safely drain the fuel continue, but the future of the tanks themselves remains under discussion.

In a column for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, former state Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson suggested the tanks could be used to store drinking water for emergency use.

"The Honolulu Board of Water Supply currently maintains dozens of steel tanks, drinking water reservoirs, on hillsides surrounding Honolulu. The Red Hill tanks could hold more water than all these tanks combined and, underground, the water would be protected," he wrote.

Anderson first laid eyes on the tanks while on a tour with then-Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris in the 1990s. He recalled being awestruck by the size and magnitude of the tanks.

"It really was just a question of time until we started seeing problems associated with some of the leaks and so forth. They need to be emptied," he told The Conversation. "The tanks are really an incredible feat of engineering. I would hate to see them taken out."

He said storing hundreds of millions of gallons of water would be a valuable asset for Hawaiʻi — and make it difficult for the Navy to reuse the tanks.

"I think everyone's afraid that the Navy is going to start reusing those tanks, even if they empty the tanks, for fuel or some other potentially hazardous material. So water would be a way to help to ensure the tanks weren't used for other purposes," he said.

Anderson, who is a biologist by training, also twice served on the Landfill Selection Commission.

The city has needed to name a new landfill site since 2019 when the state Land Use Commission added conditions to the lone municipal Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill’s permits. The LUC said the Kapolei site must close no later than March 2028, and an alternative landfill site must be identified by the end of 2022.

With time running out at the end of 2022, City and County of Honolulu officials requested a two-year extension to find a new municipal landfill site. A Landfill Advisory Committee was not able to recommend any site due to the litany of rules and proximity to the island's aquifers.

"My position, and I think it was shared by others on the commission, was that the Waimanalo Gulch site should be fully utilized. It would be a shame to walk away from that area after it's been despoiled," Anderson said.

Anderson said he believes there is still room in that area for additional waste storage. But he acknowledged other issues need to be considered.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Jan. 5, 2023. 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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