After more than four years of discussion about upgrading 20 massive, aging underground fuel tanks that could pose a threat to a major source of Oahu’s drinking water, the Navy is saying, in part, that it isn’t sure of its future fuel needs in the Indo-Pacific region — pushing for the cheapest and least protective option to satisfy federal and state regulators.
The Navy entered into an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Hawaii Department of Health to evaluate options to improve the safety of the tanks after 27,000 gallons of fuel leaked from one of the tanks at the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility in January 2014.
The Navy assessed six options, including building new tanks, constructing a tank within a tank, and double lining the tanks. The Navy informed regulators last month that it would be recommending an option that its own report described as “minimal changes to the status quo.”
It would involve coating the lower domes of the tanks to prevent corrosion — something that is already current practice for Red Hill tank repairs — and coating tank nozzles. The Navy would also fund an upgrade to its leak detection system and consider applying an experimental epoxy coating to one of the tanks.
The Navy’s choice for improving its tanks, which were hastily built in the 1940s, must be approved by the EPA and state Health Department, but it’s already alarming advocates who want more stringent protections of the area’s groundwater.
Applying a protective coat is estimated to cost $10 million to $25 million per tank, whereas a double wall to protect against leaks could cost between $100 million to $250 million per tank, according to Navy estimates.
The Navy says it’s “seeking the best practicable options.”
“As stewards of your tax dollars, the Navy will continue to pursue the most affordable option that achieves the safety and protection of our drinking water,” the Navy’s Red Hill Regional Program Director Mark Manfredi said by email.
Future fuel needs uncertain
Navy officials told regulators in August, when they briefed them on their likely choice of upgrade options, that it was currently undergoing a review of fuel requirements in the Indo- Pacific region that wasn’t expected to be complete for another year, according to Bruce Anderson, director of the state Health Department. The Health Department has extended the deadline by which the Navy must make a formal, written recommendation on tank upgrades to the end of the year so that additional studies on tank corrosion and leak-detection upgrades can be completed.
“One of the reasons they indicated to us that they are selecting this option is because of the uncertainty of what ultimately is going to be happening at Red Hill,” said Anderson. He said the Navy didn’t inform health officials about ongoing studies related to fuel requirements until last month, which has “thrown a wrinkle into this process that we did not anticipate.”
“My thinking is, given the uncertainty of the future of those tanks, it is not unreasonable that they would want to maintain them as they are with these upgrades and then come back to us with a final recommendation on what they propose over the next five years,” he said.
However, a new review of tank upgrades would probably not happen until 2024, according to the terms of the regulatory agreement, though Anderson said they could choose to re-evaluate options earlier.
The Navy’s choice worries officials with the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which is responsible for the safety of Oahu’s drinking water, and the Hawaii Sierra Club, which has successfully sued the state Health Department to require more stringent protections against leaks.
“We feel the way to protect Oahu’s water supply, water resources in that particular area especially, is to do a tank within a tank. So this is the exact opposite end of the spectrum of alternatives for upgrade options,” said Ernie Lau, manager and chief engineer of the Board of Water Supply. “This is basically the status quo with a little more of a coating on the bottom of the tank … But you are still living with the existing 1940s vintage, quarter-inch steel plate that is keeping the fuel from leaking out, and we know the steel is corroding on the back side.”
Lau said the upcoming decision about Red Hill upgrades is a critical one.
“They say the upgrade alternatives can be evaluated every five years, but … once you make a decision, to change it, every five years won’t be that easy,” said Lau.
The Board of Water Supply has warned regulators, lawmakers and the public for several years that the Red Hill tanks are situated just 100 feet above an aquifer that supplies drinking water to residents from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai. If that drinking water source is polluted by a major failure at one of the Red Hill tanks, the Navy’s own studies indicate the cleanup could take decades or be cost prohibitive.
A 2010 audit of the facility by the Naval Audit Service found that “the age of the facility presents a future risk of a moderate to a large release of fuel to the underlying groundwater.” As a result, Naval Supply Systems Command identified the Red Hill facility as “high risk.”
Navy reports also raise concerns about chronic, undetected leaks at the facility, which could migrate into the water supply, and detail dozens of past leaks at the facility dating back to the 1940s.
Marti Townsend, executive director of the Hawaii Sierra Club said the Navy’s contention that it needs more time to study its long-range fuel needs in the Pacific shouldn’t delay decisions about how to ensure the tanks don’t contaminate Oahu’s drinking water supply.
She said the Navy “seems to be talking out of both sides of their mouth” — arguing that Red Hill is the best place for storing its fuel, while also saying it’s not sure a major investment in the facility makes sense because of uncertainty about how long the tanks will be there.
“Pick one,” said Townsend. “I don’t know how foolish they think people are, but it’s fairly clear, whether we like it or not, that Hawaii has a very strategic role to play in the world and we need to ensure that fulfilling on that strategic role also does not jeopardize quality of life for residents of Hawaii. Our groundwater has to be protected, period.”
Anderson said the Health Department shares the concerns about the threat to groundwater.
“This is a critical aquifer, probably the most important aquifer in the state,” said Anderson. “And we need to be vigilant about protecting that water source.” Anderson said the Navy eventually needs to find a new location for its tanks.
The state Health Department says it will hold public meetings on the Navy’s choice of options in the coming months, as well as allow for written comments from the public.