A Navy contractor conducts a three-dimensional scan to confirm structural integrity of fuel pipes at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Halawa, Hawaii, Dec. 20, 2022, as part of the two-year project to empty the tanks.

A Navy contractor conducts a three-dimensional scan to confirm structural integrity of fuel pipes at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Halawa, Hawaii, Dec. 20, 2022, as part of the two-year project to empty the tanks. (Luke Cohen/U.S. Marine Corps)

(Tribune News Service) — The company awarded a half-million-dollar, no-bid "public outreach" contract to solicit ideas from the community about possible alternative uses of the Navy's Red Hill facility once it's closed for fueling operations is being tight-lipped about how it plans to conduct community outreach.

The Navy announced Jan. 31 that it had awarded a contract to Nakupuna Cos. and that the company and its team of subconsultants would "solicit and consider all ideas received from the community with an emphasis on citizens of Oahu."

Since then Nakupuna has declined to name its subconsultants or the team members who will be working on public outreach. The company declined interview requests and wouldn't answer written questions about how it plans to gather the ideas, whether it will host community meetings and when it plans to submit its work to the Navy.

The company told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that if it has questions about the contract, it could submit a formal records request under the Freedom of Information Act.

"We do not plan to sit for any interviews regarding the project," said Andy Minor, a spokesperson for Nakupuna Cos., by email. "After coordinating with the Navy, we ask that any further details regarding the contract be requested using the FOIA process."

Minor referred additional questions to Navy Region Hawaii's public affairs office.

The Navy also declined to say who the subcontractors are and said that it is allowed to withhold this information based on a FOIA exemption that allows the government to withhold commercial information.

The Navy declined to answer specific questions about the contract terms, such as any deliverables, how the cost of the contract was determined to be $530,168.08 and whether there is a deadline for Nakupuna to complete its work.

The Navy said that after Nakupuna collects community ideas, the Navy will meet with the Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Health, the facility's regulators, to select the public's top five ideas. The Navy said those ideas will then be evaluated for feasibility, considering the environment, engineering, maintenance, safety, cost and benefits — work that the Navy says is not included in the Nakupuna contract.

The top five ideas are expected to be identified later this year, in accordance with a "draft schedule," said the Navy, which declined to provide a copy of that schedule, saying it's being revised.

The Navy said more information about when and how the community can provide feedback and input will be available in the coming weeks. Nakupuna Cos. provided a link to a website for people to sign up to be notified when the project is ready for their input.

The company, in a statement, said that it was "pleased to be playing a role in generating community-based discussions" and that it will act as "information facilitators."

"Our team's experience with community relations will ensure we reach a broad audience, and we look forward to working with our fellow citizens to ensure their ideas are heard," according to the statement.

The Star-Advertiser earlier this month submitted a FOIA request for a copy of the contract and any deliverables outlined by the Navy for fulfilling the terms of the contract. But the Department of Defense, which has a backlog of records requests, is notoriously slow in responding.

When the Navy announced in November that it would explore ways to repurpose the World War II era-facility once it finishes permanently defueling the tanks, it was quickly criticized by groups including the Honolulu Board of Water Supply and Hawaii Sierra Club. They've questioned whether the aging tanks and pipelines can realistically and safely be reused for another purpose, even filling them with an emergency supply of drinking water.

Hawaii Sierra Club Director Wayne Tanaka said the lack of transparency about the contract only fuels concerns.

"It just doesn't make sense to solicit ideas without knowing whether any use would be safe," he said. "The fact that they also haven't evaluated clearly what this should actually cost taxpayers by avoiding procurement and competitive bidding further emphasizes the nonsensicalness of this approach."

Tanaka said greater transparency about the contract could help assure the public that the results reflect a "good-faith survey of public sentiment."

Department of Defense contracts generally need to be awarded through a competitive bidding process, but there are exceptions. Nakupuna Cos. was able to obtain the sole-source contract because it's a so-called 8(a) firm. The Small Businesses Administration's 8(a) program was designed to encourage the government to award contracts to small, disadvantaged businesses, including those owned by Native Hawaiians.

Nakupuna's website says its "family of companies" specializes in management consulting, IT, facilities and infrastructure, logistics and environmental services. The company has offices in Honolulu and Washington, D.C., as well as Colorado, Virginia, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

Nakupuna's subsidiaries have received at least $8.84 million in military contracts since 2020, according to information from the Hawaii Defense Economy project.

A Navy spokesperson said Friday that the Navy uses the 8(a) program "for situations such as social economic goals and schedule timing."

Closure plans

The Pentagon announced in 2022 that it would permanently shut down Red Hill after a fuel leak from the facility in November 2021 contaminated its nearby Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam drinking water system and sickened military families. The Navy and its contractors are working on $75 million in repairs and upgrades to Red Hill's infrastructure just so they can safely drain the approximately 104 million gallons of fuel from the underground tanks that has now been sitting there for more than a year.

The Department of Defense has been working on closure plans, and it came as a surprise to many when top officials announced in November that they would try to find another use for Red Hill. Meredith Berger, assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment, told reporters that reuse "is an option we want to make sure we preserve."

DOH, at the time, said it was not clear whether Hawaii administrative rules allow for a reuse option when underground fuel tanks are permanently shut down.

"It is not something that has ever been proposed before, and it is really the Navy's burden to say what that beneficial reuse could and would be," a DOH spokesperson told the Star-Advertiser following the DOD's announcement. "And then we would have to reevaluate it from there."

But both the Navy and Nakupuna told the Star-Advertiser this month that the idea actually originated from DOH. Nakupuna said the DOH was requiring the Navy to explore potential alternative uses for Red Hill.

The Navy told the Star-Advertiser that the Nakupuna contract "is the direct result of a request made by DOH" during a July 14 closure plan meeting.

The Star-Advertiser reached out to DOH on Wednesday seeking comment and clarification. On Friday a spokesperson said DOH was still in the "process of gathering information" related to the query.

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