Diesel spill cleanup at Space Force site on Maui could begin this week
Stars and Stripes February 23, 2023
FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — Cleanup of fuel-saturated ground at a mountaintop observatory on Maui could begin as soon as Thursday, the commander of U.S. Space Forces Indo-Pacific, which operates the site, said Wednesday.
About 700 gallons of diesel fuel spilled Jan. 29 at the Maui Space Surveillance Complex atop the 10,000-foot summit of Haleakala, a dormant volcano.
The spill was caused by a malfunctioning float in the fuel tank for the site’s generator that is used during power outages of the grid. The Space Force uses several telescopes in the complex to track satellites and space debris.
The Department of the Air Force developed a plan to excavate, clean and return the soil in coordination with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Hawaii Department of Health — as well as several other state agencies — and local community leaders.
“We’ve been working closely with the Department of Health,” Brig. Gen. Anthony Mastalir, head of U.S. Space Forces Indo-Pacific, said Wednesday during a news conference at the site that also included Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall.
“I expect to get word back today or tomorrow,” Mastalir said. “At that point, we are ready to begin excavation.”
A Honolulu-based contractor will do the job, he said.
“The Department of the Air Force is very embarrassed by the fact that this has occurred,” Kendall said.
“Our ongoing response to this fuel spill is a top priority,” he said. “That’s why I’m here today.”
The spill “harmed our reputation” and “calls into question the trust placed in us by local communities,” Kendall said.
He said he was nevertheless “fully optimistic” the site could be fully remediated.
Mastalir said earlier this month that evidence suggested the float failed due to a power surge, which resulted in fuel continuing to be sent to the tank even though it was full. An alarm that should have gone off when the tank was filled also failed, he said.
Mastalir said Wednesday that Hawaii Gov. Josh Green had asked the Space Force to inspect all its generator fuel tanks in the state.
“Currently the Space Force has six generators operating in the state of Hawaii,” he said. “We have thoroughly checked out all six of those generators to make sure that they were operating in compliance. We don’t see any issues similar to what we have found here at Haleakala.”
Kendall said technicians had compiled “important lessons” regarding the generator site, which are being shared across the Department of the Air Force to prevent similar incidents in the future.
The fuel spill has taken on outsize prominence for the Department of the Air Force because it follows a Navy fuel leak in late 2021 that contaminated groundwater and created a public backlash to the military’s presence in the state.
That jet fuel leak on Oahu came from the Navy’s World War II-era Red Hill underground fuel storage facility and led to the temporary relocation of thousands of residents living in military communities on and near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
Last fall, while Navy officials were preparing to drain the Red Hill tanks for the site’s permanent closure, toxic firefighting foam was accidently released at the facility.