The U.S. Department of Defense is drawing up plans to transfer fuel out of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage facility, but is not committing to complying with the state Department of Health’s order to permanently drain the tanks and shut down the pipeline system.
Navy officials joined the leadership of the state Department of Health and Honolulu Board of Water Supply at a joint informational briefing hosted by state lawmakers to address the ongoing Red Hill water contamination crisis. More than 30 lawmakers from the state house and senate took turns questioning the Navy, state and county officials.
The Navy reported that 4,667 medical evaluations have been performed on people possibly exposed to water polluted with petroleum, according to Capt. Michael McGinnis, U.S. Pacific Fleet surgeon. The “mass majority” of people seeking medical attention want some form of documentation in their medical record to highlight that they live in a “community at risk.” About 3,200 families have been displaced by water contamination.
“The symptoms that have presented are consistent with a petroleum based exposure, (including) nausea, vomiting,” said McGinnis.
People who drank, bathed, cooked or were somehow exposed to the contaminated water are not expected to experience long term health effects.
“But we don’t know,” McGinnis acknowledged.
Rear Admiral Blake Converse told lawmakers that a preliminary investigation revealed the source of the water contamination to be a Nov. 20 spill from a fire suppression pipeline system. The spill was located and cleaned up but it is not yet known if all the fuel was collected and how much seeped into the water supply.
“You are not 100 percent confident that it’s definitely contained?” asked state Representative Nicole Lowen, chair of the state House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection.
Rear Admiral Dean VanderLey of NAVFAC Pacific, said officials reviewed construction plans from 1943 as part of an all-out effort to find the source of the contamination. The Navy did not answer another question from Lowen about whether fuel continues to leak into the water and soil.
“This was a singular event that can be prevented in the future. We have a high level of confidence that this issue is associated with the 20 November spill,” VanderLey said. “We have identified a probable pathway that … fuel could have gotten to the water.”
Over the next two to three weeks, the Navy is using up to 10 aircraft to fly in components and construct two water filters, each capable of processing up to 10 million gallons per day.
The Navy did not address questions about the state emergency order calling for the immediate closure of the Red Hill facility. Navy said contamination of their water distribution system did not come from a tank at Red Hill. Officials did not comment on the longstanding issues at Red Hill that prompted a from a January 2014 leak of more than 27,000 gallons of jet fuel from the facility.
“We are confident this event was not the result of a leak from one of the red hill tanks,” said Converse. “We recognize the crisis we are encountering right now has had a huge impact on our families.”
The 2014 spill led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state DOH to enter into an enforceable agreement called an Administrative Order on Consent with the U.S. Navy and the Defense Logistics Agency. The AOC requires the Navy and DLA to stop fuel leaks and upgrade fuel storage and pipeline infrastructure “to protect human health and the environment,” according to the EPA.
Any decision to drain the tanks that measure 100 feet in diameter and are 250 feet high would take careful study and planning. The tanks are so large that they cannot be removed even if they are drained and the facility is shutdown.
The fuel storage relocation plans are part of a comprehensive review of the Navy’s fuel storage and distribution system that is happening while an investigation by the U.S. Pacific Fleet tries to determine how Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam’s water distribution system was contaminated with petroleum. The fuel at the Navy’s Red Hill facility is managed by the Defense Logistics Agency.
“We will initiate the planning for how and where we would store that fuel (from Red Hill) and what the risks would be for its transference … that’s only prudent. The plan is in the works,” said U.S. Navy Admiral Samuel Paparo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. “We have to study it. I couldn’t tell you where we would move the fuel but we are moving … with planning.”
In 2010 the Navy performed an audit of the Red Hill fuel storage operation and created a plan called “Evaluate Treatment Technologies for the Red Hill Drinking Water Well” in the event that fuel made their water unusable.
That evaluation conveyed that “previous environmental investigations indicated that petroleum releases to the ground underlying the fuel storage facility have occurred” and “the contaminants of concern for the Red Hill Well include volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds associated with fuel.”
Senator Donna Mercado Kim called the crisis a “calamity of errors and contradictions” and hammered state, county and Navy officials with questions about water testing, public communication and remediation efforts.
“You folks are supposed to ensure the water is safe, you want to answer that again?” said Kim, speaking to DOH officials. “If you were at the December first meeting and you heard from the residents and you saw their emotion you would feel the same way I am. Legally you (DOH) have the authority to assure this water is safe and we have fallen down on that.”
Editor’s Note: This story is developing and will be updated as soon as more information becomes available.