Navy complies with order to fix facility that leaked jet fuel into tap water
WASHINGTON — The Navy will comply with a Hawaii emergency order to empty fuel tanks and make repairs at a storage facility that contaminated drinking water with jet fuel at Pearl Harbor, an official said Monday, appearing to abandon its legal fight with the state before Navy leaders are grilled about the public health crisis in a hearing on Capitol Hill.
A November leak of 14,000 gallons of jet fuel at the long-troubled Red Hill underground fuel-storage facility at Pearl Harbor flowed into a Navy-operated well, sickening scores of people and driving 3,500 military families from their homes between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The Hawaii Department of Health issued an emergency order on Dec. 6 after tests showed fuel had contaminated a well at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The order required the Navy to develop a plan that would empty the tanks, identify needed repairs and address deficiencies within the operation, along with the installation of water filtration at the contaminated well.
The Navy suspended operations at the facility and began treating water but went to court to contest the order. But the Navy's resistance ended Friday, following a decision from the state deputy attorney general to uphold the emergency order that was later affirmed by Hawaii health officials last week.
"U. S. Pacific Fleet is complying with the Department of Health's Emergency Order for Red Hill," said Capt. Bill Clinton, a spokesperson for the command, in a decision that has not been publicly announced. The pause in operations at Red Hill has been in effect since Dec. 7, Clinton said, and there have not been any impact on operations at this time.
It is unclear if the Navy will appeal the decision, according to a defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. The Navy is in talks with the Justice Department on options and long-term solutions for the facility with national security implications in mind, the official said.
Environmental attorneys told Hawaii Public Radio that an appeal is possible but would be a challenging fight for the Navy. Military officials have contended the Red Hill facility is the linchpin fuel operation in the Pacific, capable of storing up to 250 million gallons of fuel as the Pentagon focuses on China as its most pressing adversary.
The Red Hill water shaft, the site of the November contamination, is near the huge facility of 20 underground steel fuel tanks encased in concrete, each about 20 stories tall. The tanks were carved into the basalt rock after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, following concerns that aboveground fuel depots would be targets for subsequent strikes.
The facility itself is about 100 feet above Oahu's only freshwater aquifer, stoking fears among environmentalists and lawmakers that continued problems at Red Hill will threaten the entire island. About 93,000 people rely on water from the Navy's wells.
The site has been the source of numerous and costly problems. David Day, Hawaii's deputy attorney general who rejected the Navy's arguments in the hearing, said leaks going back decades totaling about 200,000 gallons is likely an undercount.
"The evidence shows that the Red Hill Facility is simply too old, too poorly designed, too difficult to maintain, too difficult to inspect, along with being too large to prevent future releases," Day wrote in his recommendation to uphold the order, calling the facility a "ticking time bomb."
Nearly a dozen families told The Washington Post that they had experienced similar symptoms as early as spring, leading to suspicions that there was more extensive contamination than the Navy has disclosed.
Senior Navy officials are slated to testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.