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Sen. Mazie Hirono pushes Navy on Red Hill facility reforms

A year after the U.S. Pacific Fleet completed its investigation into two jet fuel spills in 2021 at the underground Red Hill fuel storage facility that led to the contamination of the Navy’s Oahu water system, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono is pressing the service to provide answers on what’s changed.

In a letter this week to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, Hirono wrote that “more than a year later, the Navy’s ongoing response to these releases continues to raise serious concerns about its ability to take the proper corrective action in a transparent manner.”

Hirono sent the letter as the military reviews the recently completed investigation of a spill of toxic firefighting foam at the Red Hill facility in November. The spill released at least 1,300 gallons of concentrated aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, which is used to suppress fuel fires. AFFF contains perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they degrade so slowly in the environment. Military and state officials say personnel responded swiftly and that the spill was contained.

On Friday the state Department of Health announced in a news release that it had received the first set of test results from soil samples it collected outside of the Red Hill facility’s Adit 6 tunnel. DOH said the first soil samples were collected after the release, while the Navy performed soil excavation and that “as expected, some per- and polyfluoralkyl substances (PFAS) levels exceeded DOH’s Environmental Action Levels (EALs) for soil.”

The DOH said it has also been collecting and observing the Navy’s collection of samples from 11 groundwater-monitoring locations near the Adit 6 tunnel, including the Red Hill Shaft. The Navy on Friday also published its first two weeks of groundwater PFAS test results, which show no exceeding of DOH’s environmental action levels for groundwater, but DOH said that “testing results for independent verification are pending and will be shared when available.”

Hirono is chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s sea power subcommittee, making her the most senior lawmaker overseeing Navy policy, planning and budgets. In the letter she told Del Toro that with “continuing community distrust in the Navy and impacted families still experiencing adverse medical conditions, it is critically important that the Navy has incorporated lessons learned into its standard operating procedures for facilities in Hawaii and all shore-based infrastructure across the Navy.”

“Many of the recommendations in Admiral (Samuel) Paparo’s investigation led to what I would characterize as straight forward recommendations,” Hirono wrote. “Others address more complex problems of culture and leadership that will require long term solutions. I am writing for a brief on how both types of these recommendations have been implemented, the status of any incomplete tasks, and the plan for confronting long term challenges.”

The Red Hill facility sits just 100 feet above a critical aquifer that provides the majority of Honolulu’s drinking water. After months of resisting a state emergency order, the military has since agreed to empty the tanks and permanently shut down the facility. But state and federal officials say the pipelines connecting the aging World War II-era fuel storage tanks to Joint Base Pearl Harbor- Hickam and other infrastructure at the facility require extensive repairs and upgrades before the fuel — more than 100 million gallons — can be safely removed.

After initially resisting a state emergency order to defuel the tanks, in March the Pentagon announced it would empty the tanks and permanently shutter the subterranean facility. In September, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin appointed Vice Adm. John Wade to helm Joint Task Force Red Hill, a newly formed military organization devoted to defueling the tanks — a process that is slated to be completed by summer of 2024.

However, the day-to-day operations of the facility fell outside of the task force’s initial mandate. Different aspects of the facility’s management fall under the auspices of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command, Naval Supply Systems Command and other agencies, while the fuel itself belongs to the Defense Logistics Agency. Much of the work itself is done by a mixture of Department of Defense civilians and various civilian contractors.

Hirono’s letter noted findings in the Pacific Fleet’s investigation that the “complex command and control of Red Hill has devolved to blurred lines of authority and accountability, as seen on November 20, 2021, when no single person took charge at the scene of the fuel leak,” and she asked Del Toro whether the Navy has “addressed the ‘management by committee’ practice at Red Hill and all shore facilities that have multiple commands involved.”

Hirono wrote that she has “expressed my concerns related to command and control in the Navy previously” and that it is “imperative that the Navy swiftly identify and stamp out the culture of procedural non- compliance and leadership mentality that lacks initiative and critical thinking.”

Earlier this month during a panel at the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce’s Military Affairs Council Partnership Conference, Wade said that in response to the AFFF spill, the Red Hill task force’s mission has expanded to provide oversight of all operations inside the facility. Wade said, “There has not been what I would call sufficient controls. … There have been activities throughout the facility … by different organizations with no integrated schedule. And that is a risk to safety, to personnel, and also for potential mishaps.”

“Now, not one activity occurs in that building without a review by my team and approval by me,” said Wade. “If any activity has high risk, there’s a concept of operations that’s briefed to me personally. And if it says a significant level, it is briefed to Adm. (John) Aquilino with a report to the secretary of defense.”