“A catastrophe waiting to happen.” That’s what Honolulu’s Board of Water Supply calls the underground military fuel tanks at Red Hill, ahead of a critical regulatory deadline. The Navy says they’re safe now and will be improved.

A letter mailed recently with every water bill was the Board of Water Supply’s way of drawing attention islandwide before a public meeting Tuesday. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health are taking public feedback before issuing a decision on how the Navy will be allowed to fix, replace or relocate the fuel tanks. The public meeting starts at 6 p.m. and runs through 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 19, at Moanalua Middle School.

“This issue about the underground storage tanks at Red Hill and the threat it is to our drinking water aquifer here is that important,” BWS Chief Engineer Ernest Lau explained regarding his decision to send a letter to every customer. “This is the biggest threat to our drinking water resources.”

Twenty tanks with a combined fuel capacity of hundreds of millions of gallons are underground at Red Hill – 18 of them currently in use. The tank bottoms about 100 feet above an aquifer that provides a quarter of Oahu’s drinking water. Nearly 30,000 gallons of fuel was released from a failing tank in 2014, and a report says there’s still a risk more could be seeping out all the time.

“Our underground drinking water aquifer is as much a part of our critical water infrastructure as are the pipes and pumps and reservoirs,” Lau said.

But the fuel is a critical infrastructure to the military and to Hawaii’s recovery from natural disasters.

“We’re really the last gas here at Red Hill for 4,000 miles, going from the west coast of the United States over to the far east,” says Cmdr. Darrel Frame, Navy Region Hawaii. “You can drain that fuel down to our ships, to Hickam Air Field, but you can also do that to Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. You can do it to the port of Honolulu. You can do it to Campbell Industrial Park. You can do it to HECO.”

Always Investigating asked Lau how he responds to this fueling facility being of critical importance to national security and Hawaii’s security?

“So is clean drinking water, which the Navy also relies upon,” Lau said.

But whether the fuel from the 2014 release got into our aquifer is not yet known for sure

“We’re monitoring to see if it reached our wells,” Lau said. “We don’t think it’s reached us yet, but we don’t know what direction the groundwater is flowing across the valley.”

Lau says they haven’t detected fuel in the water wells.

“The water is safe to drink,” Frame says. “My family and I drink it, and roughly a quarter of the water that comes to Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam comes from our Red Hill shaft.”

The Board of Water Supply says the tank facility should ideally move

“We’d like them to look at locations above ground, not over our drinking water aquifer, so located on military property to start off with,” Lau said.

But the Navy proposes that facility stay where it is, and get upgraded to double-wall containment, but not until 2045.

Always Investigating asked Frame: These will be 100 year old tanks if we wait until 2045, what do you say to that?

“I would say that infrastructure, if properly maintained, can last a long time,” Frame said. “You look at the Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, Golden Gate Bridge or the Empire State Building. We’re already doing things right now that are good to continue to protect the tanks. We’ve spent $162 million to make improvements to the facility over the past 5 years, and we plan on spending another quarter-billion over the next 5 years.”

“I don’t believe that this steel plate, which is only a quarter inch thick, was really meant to last 70-plus years or even 102 years,” Lau said. “Bottom line their scanning method with their current clean, inspect and repair process is not reliable and doesn’t protect our water resources from further contamination.”

“I encourage people to attend tomorrow night’s public meeting to share their thoughts and concerns about the Navy’s proposed tank upgrade alternatives for Red Hill,” said State Health Department Director Bruce Anderson. “DOH and EPA will consider all comments before making any decision on the Navy’s proposal.”

“The Department of Health has also published changes to existing state regulations for underground storage tank systems to address long-term concerns about the continued operation of the tanks,” Anderson said. “The proposed rules will require the Navy to either discontinue use of the Red Hill tanks or to install secondary containment. A separate public meeting on the proposed rule changes will be held on Dec. 2. “

The state Department of Health’s details about the Red Hill tanks can be found at this link.