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Navy is pressed to address safety of Red Hill tanks

Three months after an underground storage tank leaked up to 27,000 gallons of jet fuel, Navy contractors last week began to inspect the tank at Red Hill.

Meanwhile, Honolulu City Council members joined the chorus of officials urging the Navy to make improvements quickly to prevent what Honolulu Board of Water Supply Manager Ernest Lau said could be a harrowing hazard to Oahu's water supply if a powerful earthquake were to disturb the ground in the area.

The leak at Tank 5 of the Navy's Red Hill bulk fuel storage facility was discovered Jan. 13. Navy, state Department of Health and Board of Water Supply officials have said to date there are no indications that fuel has contaminated the groundwater aquifer. Elevated levels of hydrocarbons were found in soil vapor samples at nearby monitoring points.

The cause of the leak has not been determined.

Tom Clements, environmental public affairs officer for Navy Region Hawaii, said the 245-foot-tall tank holds 12,500 gallons and could envelop a structure the size of Aloha Tower.

The inspection is "a large endeavor" that required the tank to be vented before lighting, scaffolding and other safety features could be put in place, he said.

The inspection, which began Thursday, is expected to take several weeks, Clements said.

Capt. Mike Williamson, commanding officer of Naval Facilities Engineering Command Hawaii, in a release Thursday said all drinking water samples have been in compliance with state and federal regulations.

"We are wholly committed to protecting the environment and our vital fresh water resources," William­son said. "I believe we have taken prudent measures to ensure the water remains safe to drink and we look forward to continue working collaboratively with all stakeholders to ensure public safety while maintaining this critical national strategic asset."

The 20-tank storage facility, built during World War II, provides fuel for ships and aircraft at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam about 2.5 miles away.

An initial release response report that the Navy submitted to the Health Department Thursday sums up the history of the facility, outlines what happened and details actions the military has taken so far.

A risk summary states there is no way for the underground fuel to reach the surface because there are no connecting seeps.

But the fuel could conceivably reach the water table, which "may result in unacceptable concentrations of petroleum in the Red Hill sub-basin," the report says.

The sub-basin feeds a nearby Navy-run water system, so such a release could decrease the amount of potable water available to Pearl Harbor-Hickam consumers, the report says. The well provides 24 percent of the potable water to the Pearl Harbor system, which serves 52,200 military consumers.

The report concludes: "Additional release response actions, including site characterization, remediation of contamination, and installa­tion of additional groundwater monitoring wells, are recom­- mended to protect drinking water sources located down-gradient of the facility." Down gradient refers to the movement of liquid from areas of high concentration to areas of lower concentration.

The report's executive summary says a contractor is looking at modifying the existing groundwater protection plan and related work. Additionally, the Navy is seeking a contractor to "define the nature, extent and magnitude of soil and groundwater contamination beneath Tank 5" and related work.

The report notes that a four-year project to clean, inspect and repair Tank 5 was completed in December and that fuel was added to the tank on Dec. 9, just over a month before the leak was detected.

At Honolulu Hale Wednesday, the Council Public Works and Sustainability Committee heard BWS Manager Lau and Water Quality Division Chief Erwin Kawata voice their worries about the situation and the need for the city to press the Navy for more improvements promptly.

Five wells that provide up to 11.5 percent of the 140 million gallons used daily by Oahu consumers are within several miles of the storage facility, Lau said.

The board's Halawa Shaft is 5,000 feet northwest of Red Hill while the Moanalua wells are about 1.3 miles away. Collectively, the two water sources account for more than 25 percent of the water serving the area between Moana­lua and Hawaii Kai.

If a large earthquake occurs, "when you think about the large volume of fuel that's currently stored there … even if you leaked a small percentage of that, you would still have a significant volume that would reach the groundwater aquifer," Lau said. "And keep in mind the bottom of the tank itself is only roughly about 100 feet above the drinking water aquifer table, so it doesn't have very far to travel. So we are very concerned."

He said records show that a 1948 earthquake on Oahu that measured 4.6 in magnitude occurred about the same time that a 1,100-gallon leak happened at one of the fuel tanks.

The Navy put up five groundwater monitoring wells from 2005 to 2009, but there needs to be more, Lau said.

A 2010 study paid for by the Navy indicates that groundwater in the Red Hill area flows in a northwesterly pattern, which puts its path in the direction of the Halawa Shaft, Kawata said. There are no water monitoring wells along the way, he said.

The water officials also said the Navy has reported there have been dozens of fuel releases in the past totaling 1.2 million gallons, and that the Health Department did not tell BWS officials about this until the recent leak was discussed.

"I'm just extremely concerned by what I perceive to be a slow response from the Navy," Councilman Breene Harimoto said during a briefing given by Lau at a Council Public Works and Sustainability Committee meeting.

Harimoto, who represents an area between Aiea and Waipahu, said he is also troubled that city officials were not informed of previous leaks until the January leak.

Noting the frequency of earthquakes around the Pacific Rim in recent weeks, Harimoto said he is authoring a resolution urging the Navy to take more and more immediate action. The state Legislature has passed a similar resolution.

"There's a lot of concerns and uncertainty, partly because there are so few hard answers that we've received on the remediation measures, next steps and best practices that should be taken next." Council Public Works Chairman Stanley Chang said.

Lau said the Navy seems to be "open to a few monitoring wells at this point," although he indicated there is disagreement over how many.

Clements said the Navy is working with the Health Department and BWS to make improvements, and is talking to the Environmental Protection Agency and Health Department about the possibility of stricter regulations involving the tanks.

A 2008 Navy report obtained by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser last month noted that steps have been taken to improve monitoring for leaks, but also raised concerns about the age of the facility and the potential for leaks from the tanks.

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