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Navy says it will defuel Red Hill tanks, but won’t rule out future legal battles

  • Navy photoPacific Fleet commander Adm. Samuel Paparo

    Navy photo Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Samuel Paparo

Navy officials confirmed today that they will comply with an emergency order to defuel the service’s underground Red Hill tanks after weeks of officials vowing to fight the order and a contested hearing.

Rear Adm. Blake Converse told members of the House Armed Service Committee this morning during a hearing on the water crisis that Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Samuel Paparo issued directives on Friday to begin efforts to comply with the order.

“We are in receipt of the emergency order issued by the Hawaii Department of Health, and we are taking action because it is a lawful order to comply with,” Converse said.

However, when asked if the Navy has any further plans to contest the order, Converse said, “I am not a part of the decision-making apparatus on whether or not the Navy is going to contest that order, I don’t have any information on that at this point.”

Kaitlin Arita-Chang, a Hawaii Department of Health spokeswoman said, “Basically (the Navy) is complying as they have to in order to follow the law.”

The fuel in the Red Hill tanks is the suspected source of the contamination of the Navy’s drinking water system on Oahu that serves 93,000 people. The tanks, which can hold up to 250 million gallons of fuel also sit above a critical aquifer that provides much of Oahu’s drinking water.

“This order has witnessed broad support from the communities of Oahu, the governor, Department of Health, the state commission on water resource management, the City and County Board of Water Supply, city council members state legislators,” said U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele, D-Hawaii. “The whole of government of Hawaii believes that the Navy should comply with this order.”

U.S. Rep Ed Case said he wanted the military to formally acknowledge the state’s legal authority

“This is coming off as a voluntary compliance and a voluntary compliance can at some point in the future be reversed and that is the fear of the state of Hawaii,” said Case, D-Hawaii. “And so I would strongly urge the Navy and the Department of Defense as you analyze your clear legal options in terms of the emergency order to confirm that the state of Hawaii does in fact have this authority.”

During the hearing, Converse said that the Navy believes “operator error” caused the release of fuel that has contaminated the drinking water.

The state’s emergency order requires the Navy to defuel the tanks, but allows the service to potentially refuel them if it can prove that it can safely operate the facility.

However, the latest iteration of the National Defense Authorization Act includes a provision requiring the Navy to come up with alternatives to Red Hill, including potential sites outside of the Hawaiian islands.

Kaʻohewai, a recently formed coalition of Native Hawaiian organizations dedicated to shutting down the facility, called on the Navy to go further.

“The Navy must also take immediate action to clean up the fuel in a manner that does no further harm–not just to people but to our fragile environments and all the life and cultural practices they support,” said Camille Kalama, a Native Hawaiian rights attorney affiliated with the coalition said in a news release today. “This work needs to be done soon before the fuel spreads further throughout the aquifer and poisons more of the water that much of Oʼahu depends on, and before the fuel naturally moves through the water cycle out to the ocean.”

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