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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)

(Tribune News Service) — A dozen state lawmakers are asking a top U.S. Navy official to support an independent investigation into whether people under his command sought to hide details about a fuel leak into the waters of Pearl Harbor from state health officials and the public out of concern it could jeopardize the Navy's permit to continue operating its Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.

A Navy pipeline failed two leak detection tests in January, just prior to the start of a contentious contested case hearing before the state Department of Health over the Navy's Red Hill permit. Navy officials didn't report the failures to state health officials for another three months, according to a June letter from the Health Department to the Navy.

Citing local news reports that the Navy had delayed reporting the pipeline failures due to "optics" and "politics," which the Navy denies, lawmakers Tuesday asked Capt. Darren Guenther, chief of staff for Navy Region Hawaii, to look into the matter.

"If true, we ask that violating U.S. Navy officials be held accountable for their failure to be completely truthful with regulators and the residents of O'ahu," according to the letter sent to Guenther and signed by state Reps. Sonny Ganadan, Jeanne Kapela, Matthew LoPresti, Takashi Ohno, Jackson Sayama, David Tarnas, Bertrand Kobayashi, Lisa Marten, Amy Perruso, Adrian Tam and Tina Wildberger. State Sen. Stanley Chang also signed the letter.

Earlier this month Honolulu Civil Beat obtained copies of emails and other documents from a Navy employee that indicated the active leak. Among the documents was a Jan. 21 email from an unidentified Navy captain who warned that "activist organizations will use (the active leak) to advance their anti-Red Hill narrative ... at a sensitive time as the contested case hearing begins and (the) legislative season starts."

The lawmakers are also asking the Navy to investigate the causes and extent of the fuel leak, how the leak was reported to regulators, whether all of the fuel was cleaned up and whether the Navy was fined for the leak or suffered any other enforcement actions.

Lydia Robertson, a Navy spokeswoman, said that it was not true that Navy officials hid evidence of the leak out of concern that it could jeopardize the Red Hill permit. She told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that officials had immediately notified the state Department of Health in March 2020 that fuel had been spotted in the harbor, and the Navy has since been working closely with the Health Department and U.S. Coast Guard "to identify the source of the release, stop it, and clean the area affected by the release."

The Navy's response did not address the alleged three-month delay this year in reporting the pipeline failures. Those failures, combined with the visual evidence spotted in 2020, was confirmation that there had been a fuel release from the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, according to the letter that the Health Department sent to the Navy in June.

The Navy said approximately 7,100 gallons of fuel was recovered from the site, which likely includes a mixture from older sources. The fuel was recovered from the harbor and the soil.

The Navy said that the pipeline is used to transfer fuel from ships at Hotel Pier to a fuel facility for disposal and is not part of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. The pipeline was out of service for more than 20 years but was repurposed to collect discharges from pressure relief valves, according to the Navy, which said the pipeline ends at an above-ground storage tank and is about 4 miles away from the Red Hill facility.

"It is not connected to Red Hill, " said Robertson.

The state Department of Health declined to comment on the fuel leak and whether officials believe it is connected to the Red Hill fuel facility, citing the contested case and potential for enforcement action.

The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility has been under intense scrutiny from environmentalists and government regulators since 27,000 gallons of fuel leaked from one of its massive underground tanks in 2014. Subsequent news reports revealed a long history of leaks at the aging facility. The Honolulu Board of Water Supply and Hawaii Sierra Club have expressed alarm over the years that the facility, which includes 18 active, underground tanks, could contaminate an underground aquifer that serves as a major source of drinking water for Oahu. Each of the tanks can hold up to 12.5 million gallons of fuel, and they sit just 100 feet above the aquifer.

As part of contested case proceedings before the Department of Health, the Hawaii Sierra Club and Honolulu Board of Water Supply have argued that regulators should impose stringent controls over the tanks or fast-track their relocation.

The permit proceedings have now been delayed, and the Hawaii Sierra Club is pushing for the scope of the hearings to include the failed pipeline, said Wayne Tanaka, executive director of the Hawaii Sierra Club.

Ganadan, who announced the letter to the Navy during a Tuesday news conference, said lawmakers are seeking to ensure the integrity of the contested case hearing process.

"The consequences of getting this wrong are dire if the Department of Health doesn't have all the information it needs to come to an appropriate conclusion " on the permit, said Ganadan.

(c)2021 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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