HONOLULU (KHON2) — Whether the Navy will have to remove its Red Hill fuel hangs in the balance of a state hearing over a massive military water contamination crisis. Always Investigating follows up on a stunning revelation at a Department of Health hearing.
A Navy official disclosed that far more fuel leaked from the Navy’s tanks than was previously revealed back in the spring. It may be the same contaminant that sickened hundreds last month and made water still unusable for thousands on Oahu.
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Spills and leaks at the Navy’s Red Hill underground tank system, and associated with its pipelines to Pearl Harbor, have happened periodically over the years, measured in thousands of gallons at a time.
Among the smaller leaks, a release from this past May listed as 1,600 gallons last spring. But that volume was revised in this week’s Department of Health emergency hearing by ten-fold.
“Not only 19,000 gallons that the Navy couldn’t account for and was completely unaware it had lost, but that somehow — and we don’t know how — it got into a firefighting pipe that’s never supposed to have fuel in it,” explained David Henkin, an attorney with Earthjustice, one of the intervenors in the DOH hearing.
Here’s how the 19,000 gallons were disclosed: A Board of Water Supply attorney asks the NAVFAC commander about why fuel-tank volume dropped 473 barrels in 50 seconds on May 6.
“Just to be clear, my understanding is 42 gallons in a barrel, is that correct?” asked BWS attorney Ella Foley Gannon.
“Yes,” answers Capt. James Meyer, commander of the Navy Facilities Engineering Command in Hawaii.
“That’s roughly correct,” Meyer said.
“And so if you do the math, it ends up being somewhere a little bit in excess of 19,000 gallons of fuel we will be talking about there. Is that correct?” Foley asked.
Meyer added that Navy engineers theorize that fuel ended up in a firefighting pipe, which then went on to leak Nov. 20. They suspect that’s what caused fuel to get into one of the three water shafts or wells that serve area military and privatized housing. Within days residents reported smelling and tasting fuel, many were sickened, many homes still can’t use the water, and system flushing is underway.
“The take-home message here is the Navy has no idea what’s going on at Red Hill, it has no way to control its fuel and keep it out of its water supply or our water supply.”
The testimony was part of a Department of Health hearing over its emergency order for the Navy to suspend activity at Red Hill. Next steps in that process include a Thursday deadline for all parties to submit proposed findings and conclusions. A hearing officer is aiming to turn in a proposal to the health director’s office by early next week.
“The order that the department needs to issue to address this impending doom is to order the removal of the fuel from the tanks,” Henkin said.
That cannot happen overnight even if the order holds. The Navy testified it could take up to a week to drain each tank, and they’d have to find somewhere else to put the fuel. Most of the enormous tanks at the site are still holding fuel.
“So the 20 tanks, we have two that are out of service in a semi-permanent manner, leaving 18 tanks at any given time,” Meyer explained. “All four of those are usually out of service or in clean-inspect-repair or the current process. So right now there are 18 minus four, so the 14 tanks active.”
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We’ll continue to follow up as hearing and order process continues.