Navy now faces an ‘ambitious timeline’ to drain Red Hill fuel storage tanks

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – The Navy says it will comply with the state emergency order to drain its Red Hill underground fuel storage tanks, adding it is already making a plan to do so.

The announcement is an about-face for the service, which had been challenging the order.

The news came ahead of a discussion on the tainted water crisis Tuesday before the U.S. House Armed Services’ Subcommittee on Readiness.

“Yes, we are complying with the emergency order and we have already taking steps along every one of the lines directed,” Navy Rear Adm. Blake Converse told lawmakers at the hearing.

Navy officials on Tuesday also revealed just how costly the crisis has been so far, saying that the price tag has already exceeded $250 million. It’s unclear how much it will cost to empty the tanks.

“In terms of have we budgeted for the cost of this event? Clearly, we have not,” Converse said.

“What is gonna be the impact of any third party claims, I don’t have that information, but I’d be happy to take that for the record and get back to you both on the details on what we expect and what would be the cost, how we’re adjudicating them. And how we’re gonna pay for them.”

The Navy must deliver a plan to the state to drain millions of gallons of fuel from its Red Hill tank farm in 23 days and then it has 30 days to start defueling.

U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele said the Navy does have an “ambitious timeline” for addressing the crisis.

“At the end of the day, de-fueling the facility is something that I know is very very important,” he said.

Congress members say they’re also aware of of complaints by several anonymous Red Hill employees about improper operations and faulty equipment and that these red flags were raised before the May and November 2021 leaks. It’s being investigated by the Pentagon’s Inspector General.

“The committee is now aware there were complaints and warnings filed before the leak was finally addressed,” said U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier of California.

“I don’t know ma’am,” said Rear Admiral Peter Stamatopoulos, Commander, Navy Supply Command and 49th Chief of Supply Corps.

“I know is that there is an investigation and legal matter which is outside my field of view that involves employees of the Red Hill complex,” he added.

In early December, the state ordered that the World War II-era tanks be emptied after fuel contaminated the Navy’s drinking water system, sickening thousands of residents and forcing many from their homes.

The water system serves 93,000 military and civilian residents.

The order also requires the Navy to suspend operations at the Red Hill facility, install a drinking water treatment system at the Red Hill shaft — where fuel was detected — and take other corrective actions.

Under the order, the Navy could seek to fill the tanks with fuel again.

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The Navy has argued the tanks are needed for the nation’s self-defense and said the crisis was caused by human error. They’ve also claimed the facility does not pose an imminent risk to the water supply.

But the state considers the fuel depot a critical threat, pointing to the ongoing crisis and a history of leaks.

The facility, built in haste in the early 1940s, holds about 180 million gallons of fuel ― and sits just 100 feet above a groundwater aquifer that supplies 77% of the island’s total water.

The Board of Water Supply has already stopped using some of its wells for fear of fuel contamination in the Navy system migrating to its own. There’s no timeline for bringing those wells back online.

The Navy’s own estimates are that chronic leaks from the Red Hill fuel tanks probably total over 5,000 gallons of fuel per year. Larger spills have caused bigger problems.

The military has traced the ongoing crisis to a spill in November. In the wake of the contamination, the Navy has embarked on a massive flushing and clean-up effort that is still ongoing.

In a contested case hearing last month over the order to empty the tanks, state health experts testified some of the corroding 80-year-old tanks have not been inspected in 20 to 40 years.

Copyright 2021 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.

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