Personnel in support of Joint Task Force-Red Hill conduct an annual elevator inspection inside Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility Halawa, Hawaii, on Nov. 27, 2023.

Personnel in support of Joint Task Force-Red Hill conduct an annual elevator inspection inside Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility Halawa, Hawaii, on Nov. 27, 2023. (ZaBarr Jones/U.S. Army )

(Tribune News Service) — The Navy’s plan to permanently shutter the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility will soon involve a different entity : the Navy Closure Task Force-Red Hill.

That entity, which will be led by Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett, will replace the Joint Task Force-Red Hill, the multiservice military group tasked with defueling the underground fuel facility, which secretly opened during World War II.

But as far as what happens to the Red Hill site after it closes, Board of Water Supply civil engineer Joyce Lin said no determination has yet been made.

“There were talks about nonfuel reuse of the tanks, “ Lin told the City Council’s Committee on Housing, Sustainability and Health on Tuesday. “The Navy hired the Nakapuna Cos. to conduct a series of surveys of what the best nonfuel reuse options are.”

Two reports were recently released, she added.

“Unfortunately, the reports weren’t as conclusive as we had anticipated, “ Lin said. “There were no specific options selected ; it just provided data but there was no selection.”

But based on those surveys, a final report over Red Hill’s reuse will be submitted to Congress by February, she said.

“And we’re hoping that that report will provide us more insight on what that final closure method will be, “ Lin said, “whether it’s going to be used for a nonfuel reuse or whether it’s going to be dismantled or closed completely.”

She noted that efforts to defuel 104 million gallons—which began Oct. 16 under Joint Task Force-Red Hill—are nearly complete.

“As of Nov. 17 the Joint Task Force has defueled 99.5 % of the 104 million gallons of fuel at Red Hill, “ she said. “There are still some fuel remaining in the fuel tanks that is being defueled in the second phase of this defueling.”

But Lin said the over-three-year timeline to close Red Hill will first involve removing the remaining “flowable fuel that’s at the very bottom of the tanks.”

That work is expected to begin Friday.

“And I believe (the Navy ) said March 2024 is when they’re going to start closure, “ she added.

Red Hill’s closure includes removing 4, 000 gallons of fuel and 28, 000 gallons of sludge.

Tentatively, Red Hill’s full closure date is scheduled for August 2027, she added.

Meantime, the water agency has taken other actions over Red Hill.

To recover costs associated to its response to the 2021 fuel spills that sickened families and threatened Oahu’s freshwater supply and led to the Navy’s decision to defuel the massive tanks, BWS in late October filed a $1.2 billion claim, under the Federal Tort Claims Act, with the Navy.

That claim—filed with the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps in Norfolk, Va.—is not a formal legal action like a lawsuit. Instead, the Navy has six months to respond or reject the claim.

If it’s rejected, BWS Manager and Chief Engineer Ernest Lau told the committee his agency might move forward with a formal lawsuit against the Navy.

Under Council questioning, Vice Chair Esther Kia ‘aina commended BWS for filing its claim to recover Red Hill response costs.

But Kia ‘aina also wondered whether other “eligible entities “ could file more federal tort claims over the Red Hill fuel spills.

“Is it only the Board of Water Supply ?” she asked. “Could it be the public ? Could it be an individual family in the City and County of Honolulu ?”

City Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeff Lau said the city “actually did not look into that question of who is exactly entitled to file a claim, “ as this claim pertained only to BWS.

“But that is something that we can look into and get an answer for you, “ the attorney added.

Kia ‘aina said that “question is important, of course, because the public was impacted, and depending on the strength and strategy (of the claim ) ... the City and County of Honolulu can join you, the State of Hawaii can join you.”

Chair Tommy Waters also questioned BWS Manager Lau.

In doing so, Waters read aloud from a portion of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Nov. 27 editorial titled “Navy must pay for Red Hill mess.”

“They reported that ‘the Navy has shown little interest in making up for its bad behavior. It has denied earlier requests for compensation from the BWS and those exposed to contamination, ‘” said Waters. “It goes on to say that ‘the Navy secretary, Carlos Del Toro, ‘ only sent letters of censure to three admirals and seven captains that could be directly involved in this catastrophe, and it really is a catastrophe.”

Waters then queried Lau on whether BWS had, in fact, made earlier requests for compensation from the Navy over Red Hill fuel spills.

Lau confirmed that was indeed the case.

“We tested the waters by asking, ‘Can you pay for our monitor wells that we’re installing to help further the understanding of the impact on the aquifer ?’” Lau explained. “And they said no.”

He added, “Right now there’s no mechanism for (the Navy ) to give us money. So, the FTCA claim actually now provides a legal mechanism for them to provide funds to the Board of Water Supply.”

Lau said BWS was “hopeful “ that the Navy will “understand and start to provide funds for the Board of Water Supply to offset the costs we anticipate we’ll have to incur.”

According to Lau, those costs include more than $1.18 billion to permanently shut down its Halawa Shaft—one of Oahu’s four main water supply shafts—as well as drinking water wells in Aiea and Halawa in order to prevent fuel contamination from entering Hono ­lulu’s water system.

In addition, Lau noted nearly $25 million in other costs associated with the Navy fuel spills.

Those costs relate to lost water production replacement ; enhanced water testing ; developing additional monitoring wells and alternate water supply wells ; and materials, supplies, serv ­ices and staff time expended to date, BWS says.

Moreover, Lau said the historic fuel spills from the once top-secret, 80-year-old military facility that have likely affected Oahu’s freshwater sources over time were also of great concern.

“The latest estimates now of potential leaks in the past range from 600, 000 to nearly 2 million gallons of past releases, “ Lau said.

In his prior discussions over Red Hill with the military, Lau said he’d asked that “we really need greater transparency here.”

To that, Waters asked, “Is it accurate that up until now the Navy has not been transparent with this information ?”

“It’s been a challenge from 2014 for us, when we first got involved on this issue, “ Lau told Waters, who asked about the Navy’s transparency with information to date.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in January 2014, during the course of refilling Red Hill Storage Tank No. 5, following routine maintenance and repair work, the Navy identified an estimated fuel release of up to 27, 000 gallons of JP-8 aviation fuel from the tank.

The Navy subsequently reported the release to the state Department of Health.

“The Navy then drained the tank and collected samples from existing monitoring wells. Results taken in and around Tank 5 indicated a spike in levels of hydrocarbons in soil vapor and groundwater, “ the EPA states.

Meanwhile, on Friday the DOH announced it partnered with the EPA to secure up to $75 million for use by BWS.

Among the potential uses for this funding, BWS might resume use of its Halawa Shaft for drinking water, DOH reported.

In its Nov. 29 letter to the water agency, DOH, in addition to possibly reopening Halawa Shaft, says it identified other BWS projects that might qualify for federal funding opportunities.

(c)2023 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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