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Hawaii health officials say whistleblower alleges Navy withheld information about Red Hill from regulators

  • COURTESY U.S. NAVY / 2018
                                A tunnel inside of the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility is shown in 2018.

    COURTESY U.S. NAVY / 2018

    A tunnel inside of the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility is shown in 2018.

A whistleblower told Hawaii environmental regulators that the Navy has withheld information about holes and corrosion in its Red Hill tanks that have been identified during inspections in past decades, as well as the location of a pipeline, as it seeks a state permit to continue operating the fueling facility near Pearl Harbor.

Based on the claims by an unnamed naval officer, the Department of Health’s Environmental Health Administration is asking DOH’s director to expand a contested case hearing over the Navy’s permit application.

“On or about September 16, 2021 a naval officer informed the DOH Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office that inaccurate testimony had been submitted, and important information had been wrongfully withheld by the Navy in the contested case proceedings,” according to the filing by James Paige, deputy attorney general for DOH’s Environmental Health Administration.

Paige writes that the naval officer making the allegations is familiar with the Red Hill facility, including its corrosion and leak detection issues, historical data and extent of Red Hill’s tanks and piping infrastructure that falls under the state’s regulatory authority.

The naval officer was subsequently interviewed on Oct. 13 by forensic analysts from the Department of the Attorney General, wrote Paige. The officer provided documents to support his allegations, according to a declaration from analyst Dean Tsukada.

Mike Andrews, a spokesman for Navy Region Hawaii, said the Navy does not “comment specifically on matters in litigation,” but said that “the Navy does not purposefully withhold information from regulators.”

The “Navy has and will continue to provide all required information to regulators and as part of any legal proceedings,” Andrews said by email.

As part of the permitting process, DOH had requested that the Navy provide a facility drawing that showed the locations of the Red Hill storage tanks, surge tanks, product recovery tanks, Hickam airfield piping and hydrant pits and piers where fuel is dispensed, according to Paige’s filing.

DOH also requested detailed tank and piping diagrams that showed which segments of piping had corrosion protection, whether the piping was single or double-walled, the material it was constructed out of and all above- and below-ground storage tanks that are part of the system. A description of how fuel was dispensed was also requested.

The naval officer told state officials that a defuel pipeline was not disclosed as part of that process, wrote Paige.

The officer also told DOH that there are “historical records of corrosion issues, including holes in tanks, that are being hidden from the regulators,” wrote Paige. “These records are from cleaning, inspection, and repairs that were done in the 60’s, 80’s, and 90’s.”

Paige wrote that DOH could not locate any historical corrosion documents from that period and had no basis of knowing that such information existed until receiving information from the naval officer.

The Hawaii Sierra Club and Honolulu Board of Water Supply had requested a contested case hearing on the Navy’s application for a five-year permit for its Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility, which was nearing its conclusion.

DOH’s Environmental Health Administration is asking that the hearing’s officer in the contested case, Lou Chang, be allowed to receive new evidence, review and potentially strike previously received evidence and issue a new proposed decision and order.

The Environmental Health Administration, which is a party in the proceedings, concluded in July that the Navy had not proven that it can safely operate its underground Red Hill fuel tanks, which in recent years have been the subject of mounting concerns over leaks that could potentially contaminate an aquifer serving as a major source of drinking water for Oahu.

The agency said that if a permit is issued for Red Hill it would need to include conditions that would protect against tank erosion, mitigate the uncertainty of the Navy’s own groundwater modeling and address its lack of treatment and recovery systems for spills.

In September, the hearing’s officer recommended that the Navy be issued the permit, but said that it should come with inspection and repair requirements.

Ultimately, it is up to DOH Director Dr. Libby Char to make a final decision on the Navy’s permit request.

EHA's Motion for Remand JCP Revisions.docx – EHA-s-Motion-For-Remand by Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Scribd

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