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Hawaii’s 4 members of Congress doubt safety at Red Hill

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All four members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation said Monday in a letter to the secretary of the Navy that they have “increasing concerns” about the safety of the Navy’s fuel operations in Hawaii.

“We are particularly troubled about reports of a fuel leak near Hotel Pier” at Pearl Harbor that occurred in March 2020 and “allegations that the Navy was not appropriately forthcoming about the source and scale of the fuel leak with state regulators, federal officials and the public — including our offices,” the lawmakers said.

Between March 2020 and May 2021, approximately 7,100 gallons of fuel was recovered from the Hotel Pier site, the Navy said recently.

“The Navy’s decision not to (earlier) publicly acknowledge the Hotel Pier fuel leak and explain what it is doing to prevent future leaks is inconsistent with” a Navy commitment to remain transparent “on all matters that could affect our environmental resources,” the Hawaii Democrats said.

Additionally, after 1,618 gallons of JP-5 jet fuel was released from a pipeline inside the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility on May 6, the Navy “initially told the public that no fuel released into the environment, a statement we learned not to be accurate once the Navy discovered the full extent of the spill,” states the letter signed by U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and U.S. Reps. Ed Case and Kai Kahele.

The Navy said in a May 7 news release that preliminary reports indicated approximately 1,000 gallons of fuel was released.

“Our containment system functioned as designed to keep the fuel contained within our facility, with no indication that fuel was released to the environment,” Capt. Gordie Meyer, commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Command Hawaii, said in the release.

The Navy on Oct. 26 followed up with a release saying that “operator error” caused the release of 1,618 gallons of fuel, with the Navy recovering all but 38 gallons.

The Sierra Club of Hawaii had said May 25 that Navy soil vapor monitoring data revealed a spike in fuel contaminants in the soil below the Red Hill fuel tanks following the May 6 leak.

The Navy’s claim that the fuel was properly collected by the fuel contamination system was “pure shibai,” Sierra Club attorney David Kimo Frankel said at the time. “The Navy’s own data proves that its leak was not properly contained. The leak migrated from the facility and reached the subsurface.”

Navy Region Hawaii referred a request for comment about the congressional concerns to the chief of naval information in Washington, D.C.

The letter from Hawaii’s congressional delegation points to a credibility problem for the Navy, which had enjoyed general support from the lawmakers for its plan to maintain the World War II-built Red Hill tank farm with vigorous inspection and restoration and hopes to eventually upgrade the underground tanks with built-in secondary containment.

The 20 tanks, each 250 feet tall and placed 100 feet above a major drinking water aquifer for Oahu, have been under increased scrutiny and regulatory review since 27,000 gallons of fuel spilled from Tank 5 in 2014.

The 7,100 gallons of fuel recovered between 2020 and May from Hotel Pier at Pearl Harbor was from a “defuel” pipeline originally used to transfer fuel and more recently utilized to collect fuel discharges from pressure relief valves.

The pipeline failed two leak detection tests in January, just prior to the start of a contentious contested case hearing over the Navy’s Red Hill permit.

Honolulu Civil Beat obtained copies of emails and other documents from a Navy employee indicating that higher-ups had sought to cover up the active leak. Among the documents was a Jan. 21 email from a Navy captain who warned that “activist organizations will use (the active leak) to advance their anti-Red Hill narrative … at a sensitive time as the contested case hearing begins and (the) legislative season starts.”

Lydia Robertson, a Navy Region Hawaii spokeswoman, said last month it was not true that Navy officials hid evidence of the leak. She said officials had immediately notified the state Health Department in March 2020 that fuel had been spotted in the harbor.

Efforts were then made to identify the source of the leak, she said. The Navy’s response did not address an alleged three-month delay in reporting the pipeline failures.

The congressional letter to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro asks what evidence there is, if any, that Navy officials withheld information about the Hotel Pier leak that would have been material to the state Department of Health’s consideration of a Red Hill operating permit renewal.

“These recent incidents, including the manner in which the Navy has responded to them and its lack of transparency with the public, raise questions about the seriousness with which the Navy takes it responsibility to communicate clearly with the public about matters concerning health and safety,” the lawmakers wrote. “The people of Hawaii deserve better from the Navy.”


Star-Advertiser reporter Sophie Cocke contributed to this report.

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