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A tunnel inside of the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility in Hawaii is shown in this undated file photo.
A tunnel inside of the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility in Hawaii is shown in this undated file photo. (Shannon Haney/U.S. Navy)

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — The Navy has reinforced a proposal to reduce the risk of its massive World War II-era Red Hill underground fuel storage complex polluting Oahu's drinking water aquifer after safety regulators rejected the plan almost a year ago.

In a recently published 540-page document, the Navy fortified its original 98-page plan from 2019 in an effort to convince the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Hawaii Department of Health to approve fuel facility upgrades proposed in the original plan as part of a regulatory agreement following a 27,000-gallon spill at Red Hill in 2014.

"The U.S. Navy is committed to protecting our environment, national security, and the health of our communities, " the supplemental filing states. "The extensive work we've done, including plans to invest (over $470 million through fiscal year 2025), accomplishes all three of these goals."

EPA spokesman Alejandro Diaz said there's no estimated time frame for the two regulatory agencies to respond after reviewing the new filing.

David Kimo Frankel, an attorney representing the Sierra Club of Hawaii, was quicker to give an assessment of the Navy's extra effort. He said it doesn't deserve approval and only enhances arguments for "relatively minor " upgrades to the 20-tank system capable of holding 250 million gallons of fuel.

"What the Navy has endorsed is the cheapest possible alternative, " Frankel said.

Frankel also noted that 1,000 gallons of jet fuel spilled from a Red Hill distribution pipe in May despite several operational changes already made.

The Navy claimed the discharge was contained and didn't have an impact on the environment, though the Health Department reported that soil vapor data indicated fuel reached the subsurface.

"The Navy's credibility is completely shot, " Frankel said.

No groundwater contamination has been detected from the two spills, but regulators are ensuring this risk is addressed.

An upper edge of Oahu's potable water aquifer, the principal source of drinking water for more than 750,000 Oahu residents, is 100 feet below the fuel tank farm in a layer of saturated volcanic rock.

To protect this vital public health resource, the agreement requires that six potential upgrades be considered, and if one isn't approved and implemented by 2037 then Red Hill fuel storage operations must cease.

Alternatives included two types of double-wall tanks, a tank within a tank, and retrofitting the existing 250-foot-tall, steel-lined, reinforced concrete tanks by replacing the steel liner with a new steel liner featuring a protective coating.

The Navy selected an alternative that would coat existing tanks, decommission nozzles that are potential leak sources, improve a leak detection system and continue an enhanced cleaning, inspection and repair program that was adopted after the 2014 spill.

In October, the EPA and Health Department found the proposal deficient and asked the Navy to address shortcomings and resubmit its plan.

Problems cited in the proposal at that time included generalized statements about construction risks for adding secondary containment to existing tanks, a lack of detailed performance comparisons among alternatives, and no clear connection between the Navy's recommended alternative and protecting Oahu's potable water aquifer.

Donald Panthen, director of the Navy's Red Hill program management office, said in a recorded statement Wednesday that the Navy anticipated the two regulatory agencies would request more information.

"It is important to point out that this is the first time all three agencies have been involved in an endeavor of this nature, and it's critical that each agency understands what is being proposed and has the opportunity to ask and answer questions about it, " he said.

The agreement, which is between the three parties and the Defense Logistics Agency, requires that a "best available practicable technology approach" be taken to safeguard groundwater from Red Hill fuel that the Navy said is critical for national defense.

Also under the agreement, whatever safety upgrade plan is approved must be reevaluated every five years to determine if additional improvements, possibly using future technology, should be made.

Some critics of the Navy's plan, including the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, have a different view on what is practicable now, though the Navy claims its plan represents the best available practicable technology today while committing to future secondary containment.

Panthen compared the proposal with the evolution of the iPhone.

"Five years ago, the best iPhone available at that time was the iPhone 6, which had additional enhancements over the iPhone 5, " he said. "At that time, the iPhone 6 was the best available practicable technology. Did Apple hold up the release of iPhone 6? No, it released iPhone 6 and now, five years later, they are coming out with the iPhone 12."

Panthen said the Navy needs the regulators to approve its current plan that can be upgraded in future stages.

"In keeping with the objectives of the (agreement), the Navy remains fully dedicated to working collaboratively, transparently and in good faith with EPA, DOH and the public that the environment is protected, and that our water is safe to drink, " he said. "In that spirit of teamwork, the Navy looks forward to maintaining a meaningful and productive collaboration with the EPA and DOH."

(c)2021 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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