December 06, 2021

Hawai‘i Delegation Calls for Comprehensive IG Evaluation into Navy’s Ability to Safely Operate Red Hill

~ Letter follows an initial targeted request into specific allegations of whether the Navy engaged in a cover-up or intentionally delayed reporting of a fuel leak at Red Hill to secure operating permits ~

~ Delegation sends request following a troubling series of safety hazards at Red Hill, including most recently, reports of petroleum detected in the water at Red Hill elementary school and confirmed petroleum contamination in drinking water months ago ~

~ Yesterday, Governor Ige and the Hawai‘i delegation called for the Navy to immediately suspend operations at Red Hill while they confront and remedy this crisis ~

~ Members call into question the Navy’s ability to safely operate Red Hill and state that the continued series of events have sowed community distrust ~

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawai‘i) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) and U.S. Representatives Ed Case (D-Hawai‘i) and Kaiali‘i Kahele (D-Hawai‘i) today called for a Department of Defense Inspector General (DOD IG) evaluation into the Navy’s ability to safely operate Red Hill. Earlier this month, the delegation called for the DOD IG to determine whether the Navy properly investigated recent fuel releases and notified state health officials in a timely manner, and whether the Navy delayed investigation or notification in an attempt to secure a permit to operate Red Hill. Today’s request asks the IG to conduct a more comprehensive, holistic evaluation to assess the overall safety of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. Yesterday, Governor Ige and the Hawaii delegation called for the Navy to immediately suspend operations at Red Hill while they confront and remedy this crisis.

The letter follows a series of recent troubling safety hazards, including on November 20, 2021, where 14,000 gallons of fuel and water were released from a fire suppression drain line, ongoing widespread complaints from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam military housing residents about their potable water having a chemical or fuel smell, confirmed petroleum in the water at Red Hill Elementary School, and tests showing petroleum in drinking water at a Red Hill well confirmed by the Navy months ago.

In this latest request to the DOD IG, the delegation said, “additionally, as several of the recent incidents have involved leaks or releases from pipes connected to Red Hill and deemed part of the overall Red Hill system, we urge you to include in your evaluation an assessment of the safety of the piping system connected to Red Hill, as well as the effectiveness of personnel training in minimizing incidences caused by human error. Finally, the evaluation you conduct should include an independent review of the current safety of Red Hill’s fuel tanks and the feasibility of the Navy’s plan to either double-hull the twenty fuel tanks or close Red Hill by 2045.”

“We recognize the strategic importance of Red Hill to our national security. However, it is imperative that the public has confidence that Red Hill is and will be operated in a manner that safely protects the aquifer that supplies a majority of the potable water to Honolulu and the surrounding areas,” the delegation added.

The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility is operated by the United States Navy but supports U.S. military operations from all branches of service in the Pacific.  It was constructed during World War II (1940–1943) and is located under a volcanic mountain ridge near Honolulu, Hawaii, about 2.5 miles east of Pearl Harbor. It is unlike any other fuel storage facility in the United States as it can store up to 250 million gallons of fuel in 20 steel lined tanks. Red Hill sits 100 feet above an aquifer that provides drinking water to a majority of residents on O‘ahu. 

In 2014, approximately 27,000 gallons were released from the facility which resulted in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Hawaii Department of Health (DOH) negotiating an enforceable agreement, also known as an Administrative Order on Consent, with the U.S. Navy and the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA). The Order requires the Navy and DLA to take actions, subject to DOH and EPA approval, to address fuel releases and implement infrastructure improvements to protect human health and the environment.

A 2018 change to the Hawaii Administrative Rules required the Navy to obtain a permit to continue to operate the Red Hill tanks.  The Navy’s 2019 permit request was contested by the Sierra Club of Hawaii and the case was recently re-opened due to the 2021 incident involving Red Hill. A determination on Navy’s permit application is pending from the Hawaii Department of Health.

Full text of the letter is available here and below:

December 6, 2021

Mr. Sean O’Donnell
Acting Inspector General
Department of Defense
4800 Mark Center Drive
Alexandria, VA 22350-1500 

Dear Mr. O’Donnell:

We write to request that in addition to the investigation the Hawaii Congressional Delegation requested on November 3, 2021, you conduct a more comprehensive, holistic evaluation to assess the overall safety of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility (hereinafter “Red Hill”). The aforementioned request for the investigation centered on discreet allegations about whether officials involved in the operation and oversight of Red Hill engaged in a cover-up or intentionally delayed reporting of a fuel leak to secure a Hawaii Department of Health operating permit. Subsequent to that initial request, a series of incidents have called into question the Navy’s ability to safely operate Red Hill and sowed community distrust.

We request that a component of this more holistic, comprehensive evaluation specifically assess the incident on November 20, 2021, where 14,000 gallons of fuel and water were released from a fire suppression drain line and that you review the Navy’s recent laboratory confirmation of petroleum hydrocarbons in the Red Hill Well after recent and ongoing widespread complaints from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam military housing residents about their potable water having a chemical or fuel smell. As part of this evaluation, we request an assessment of the Navy’s response plan for incidents that contaminate drinking water, including making potable water available to affected residents as well as frequency and clarity of communication with affected state agencies and the public, be included.

Additionally, as several of the recent incidents have involved leaks or releases from pipes connected to Red Hill and deemed part of the overall Red Hill system, we urge you to include in your evaluation an assessment of the safety of the piping system connected to Red Hill, as well as the effectiveness of personnel training in minimizing incidences caused by human error. Finally, the evaluation you conduct should include an independent review of the current safety of Red Hill’s fuel tanks and the feasibility of the Navy’s plan to either double-hull the twenty fuel tanks or close Red Hill by 2045.  

We recognize the strategic importance of Red Hill to our national security. However, it is imperative that the public has confidence that Red Hill is and will be operated in a manner that safely protects the aquifer that supplies a majority of the potable water to Honolulu and the surrounding areas. For these reasons, we respectfully ask you broaden your review to also include an evaluation of the overall safety of Red Hill and the Navy’s plan going forward to mitigate the risk and respond to any future fuel leak or release. Your independent results will inform Red Hill’s safety and any risks that must be addressed to protect surrounding communities. Thank you for your consideration of this request. 

###