OSHA official talks firefighting foam system violation at Red Hill
A year ago this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked labor inspectors to step in and take a look at a fire suppression system at the Navy Red Hill underground fuel storage facility.
They found the system in the lower access tunnel had been disabled and locked down, meaning firefighting foam would not be automatically triggered in the event of a fire.
The officer who took the Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors around was not aware the system was disabled, according to OSHA documents. That put worker safety at risk.
"They really didn't understand that the system was locked out. They thought it was in an automatic mode, just like the sprinkler system in a building where heat or smoke would set it off, and it would start automatically," said Roger Forstner, the OSHA area director based in Honolulu.
He signed off on the OSHA violation notice and talked to The Conversation about what they found inspecting the AFFF system — aqueous film-forming foam.
"There was no way that immediately they could get that AFFF to blanket if there was a fire. Employees working in that area definitely with that much fuel can become trapped. I would think it would probably be contained inside of there. So for the public, it probably wouldn't have been a risk, but you never know. It's a lot of fuel," Forstner said.
The U.S. Labor Department said its violation initially included a concern that hot work, or welding, was allowed in the area.
That part of the complaint was dropped when it was determined that proper protocols were followed, which included checking with a marine chemist and federal firefighters prior to the work.
The Navy maintained that the AFFF system could still be operated manually and that it also switched to using fuels with a higher flash point, which were not as volatile and so “technically” not in violation of OSHA standards.
It still however raises questions about what could happen in a catastrophic event.
"Most of our stuff, when you have that large of fuel tanks, they're outdoors. Red Hill is one of those unique places where you got a lot of different things that are unique to that one location. Whereas typically, you got the fuel tanks out in different places, they're outside and you have a lot less risk for vapors concentrating because it's in open air," Forstner said.
The Navy said that prior to the use of the firefighting foam system, it had a sprinkler system that could use water — even though OHSA said water would not be very effective by itself.
The Navy said it now has a dedicated person on duty to manually activate the firefighting foam.
Wednesday marks four months to the day that 1,300 gallons of AFFF spilled from a pump station in an area called Adit 6.
The Navy has not said why it is taking so long to release the findings of the investigative report. While it has pledged better transparency, it won’t say what exactly is hanging up the release of the documents and the video of the area.
This interview aired on The Conversation on March 28, 2023. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.