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A February 2016 photo of an empty fuel tank at the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii. A fuel spill in November at the facility leaked into the base drinking water and made some military families ill, forcing about 700 people to leave their homes.
A February 2016 photo of an empty fuel tank at the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii. A fuel spill in November at the facility leaked into the base drinking water and made some military families ill, forcing about 700 people to leave their homes. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Meranda Keller/U.S. Navy photo)

WASHINGTON — The fuel spill at a Navy-run facility in Hawaii that supplies water to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam was most likely the result of an operator error, though an ongoing investigation into the cause is expected to draw more definite conclusions, service officials told the House lawmakers Tuesday.

The spill on Nov. 20 at the Red Hill underground fuel storage facility leaked jet fuel into the base drinking water, sickening some military families and forcing about 700 people to leave their homes. The incident has cost the Navy more than $250 million so far, said Rear Adm. John K. Korka, who is in charge of the Navy’s engineering systems command.

“The Navy has a comprehensive and transparent recovery plan and we are executing our mission,” Korka told members of a House Armed Services Committee subpanel during a hearing dedicated to the incident. “I pledge my commitment to continue to work alongside other service counterparts and our regulatory partners to deliver safe drinking water, return our families to their homes [and] remediate the Red Hill well.”

Rear Adm. Blake Converse, the deputy commander of the Pacific Fleet, said the investigation will consider the spill’s possible connection to a May 6 spill that was also concluded to have been caused by operator error.

The investigation is being conducted by an officer outside Red Hill’s chain of command and will include a team with a “high-degree of technical expertise,” including third-party civilian fuel-distribution experts and local hydrologists, Converse said.

The Hawaii Department of Health in December ordered the Navy to halt operations at Red Hill and the service complied. The state health department on Jan. 3 gave the Navy 30 days to submit plans on how it will drain the fuel facility.

Converse said the Navy plans to submit the fuel-draining plans, but Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., questioned why the service would close and drain the facility if the cause was not due to a problem with the storage tanks.

I’m really quite confused, if this was related to operator error and the particular incident that happened most recently does not have to do with the integrity, structural integrity, or condition of the tanks, what point [does defueling] serve?” Luria asked.

The Navy could contest Hawaii’s order, but Converse said before decisions can be made, the Navy should wait until a full investigation into the incident is completed “to understand the full scope of the issue.”

“A decision on whether to contest the order has to take into account the strategic importance of Red Hill, the alternatives and a number of factors that are associated with the combatant commanders’ responsibilities,” he said. “Ultimately the secretary of the Navy and [the defense secretary] will have to make a decision on that.”

The incident’s costs are expected to rise. For example, the Navy will pay for any follow-on care for medical issues related to the spill, Converse said.

Capt. Michael McGinnis, the Pacific Fleet surgeon, said most military families exposed to contaminated water have had symptoms that include nausea, vomiting, headaches, diarrhea and skin or eye irritations. He said those issues were “rapidly resolved” after their exposure to the contaminated water ended.

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Caitlin Doornbos covers the Pentagon for Stars and Stripes after covering the Navy’s 7th Fleet as Stripes’ Indo-Pacific correspondent at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Previously, she worked as a crime reporter in Lawrence, Kan., and Orlando, Fla., where she was part of the Orlando Sentinel team that placed as finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. Caitlin has a Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Kansas and master’s degree in defense and strategic studies from the University of Texas at El Paso.
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