Hawaii demands remediation from Navy following jet fuel leak
A new report from a government working group wants the military to assume responsibility for massive water contamination that affected thousands, including the Navy's own dependents.
by Candace Cheung, Court House News, November 29, 2023
HONOLULU (CN) — Hawaii state officials called for accountability and cooperation from the U.S. Navy in a report issued Tuesday addressing the ongoing water crisis after thousands of gallons of toxic jet fuel from Navy storage facility contaminated Oahu’s water system.
The Navy began the shutdown and defueling of its Underground Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility near Pearl Harbor on Oahu in October, but the Red Hill Water Alliance Initiative say in the report that the military must continue to assume responsibility for the health of the island’s waters, as well as indemnification for any damages and claims against it.
Investigation into the November 2021 fuel leak from Red Hill — which sits 100 feet above an aquifer that serves a majority of Oahu — revealed that fuel leaks had occurred unknown to the public since the initial construction of the World War II-era facility. The November 2021 fuel leak entered the Navy’s own water system and contaminated the drinking water of thousands of the military’s own dependents and surrounding civilian residences, schools and businesses.
The Red Hill Water Alliance Initiative — formed in May 2023 and comprising of state and city officials including Governor Josh Green and Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi — estimates in its report that 1.94 million gallons have been released from Red Hill since the 1940s.
“It is urgent that a way forward be established to address the damages that the Red Hill fuel facility has inflicted on our aina and wai,” Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau and a member of the WAI working group said in the press conference, using the Hawaiian words for land and water. “Long-term oversight, transparency and accountability on this environmental crisis created by the Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility must be created to ensure that these resources will be remediated and available for generations to come. This report’s recommendations provide a starting place for this effort.”
Officials on Tuesday called Red Hill crisis an “existential threat” to the people of Hawaii and emphasized immediate action in remedying the contamination. The report recommends the formation of a long-term health registry to monitor the effect of exposure to Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons.
The report focuses on remediation of the land Red Hill sits on and addresses removing residual contaminants in the land before it taints the aquifer and the surrounding ecosystem.
The group notes the U.S. government's history of shutting down hazardous facilities without proper environmental remediation, including other military facilities in the Pacific region like in American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands that still bear traces of dangerous hydrocarbons. The report also references the thousands of sites in California that are being reassessed as environmental changes present new dangers.
“As the sea rises, previously unaccounted for surface and subterranean flooding can cause movement of contaminants into other areas, including aquifers,” the group says in the report. “This is a cautionary example of what can happen when sites are not remediated, and a direct forewarning for our situation at Red Hill which is in a coastal area likely to be impacted by sea level rise.”
State Senator Jarrett Keohokalole recalled the island of Kahoolawe, used by the military for decades for bombing target practice and still uninhabited except for cultural practices as environmental restoration continues.
“It is critical that Red Hill does not end up like Kahoolawe, where cleanup was promised but was not followed through,” Keohokalole said at the conference. “These efforts ensure that our expectation of the Navy is a restoration of our wai and nothing less.”
In the report, the working group proposes a “sentinel” grid to reinforce existing monitoring wells as well as continued monitoring and testing of the surrounding waters and forest reserves.
The working group says that there are still many unknowns about how much pollutants have been released from Red Hill over its 80-year history. It notes that while fuel constituents will naturally biodegrade over time, the risk to the water system is too great to just “wait and see.” The group calls for more research to be done on accelerating the timeline of biodegradation as they cannot confirm that fuel spills in the early days of the facility in the 1940s and 1950s have been entirely neutralized.
The group also condemns the Navy’s possible plans to repurpose the facility’s 20 250-foot tall tanks for non-fuel purposes. The Navy expects defueling to be completed by the end of 2024, though state officials have noted that it is already ahead of schedule.
A Navy spokesperson said Red Hill will be closed and remediation will occur. “The Navy remains committed to the safe closure of Red Hill and long-term remediation of the site. Partnership and collaboration are key to the success of these endeavors, and we share the same goals as the people of Hawaii: protect the environment, the water, and the community," the spokesperson said. "We will continue to share information with elected officials, stakeholders, and the public, reinforcing the importance of transparency and our enduring commitment to Hawaii.”
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FINAL 'RED HILL WAI' REPORT ISSUED
News Release from Red Hill Water Alliance Initiative Nov 28, 2023
Honolulu, Hawaiʻi – On Tuesday, the Red Hill Water Alliance Initiative (WAI) group consisting of State and City leaders unveiled its final report, which calls for aquifer remediation and an integrated approach to resolving the water crisis.
The Red Hill WAI report can be accessed on the Hawaiʻi State Capitol website here.
The Red Hill WAI was formed after its members signed a unified statement on May 8, 2023, signifying their commitment to preserving access to safe, pure water. The joint statement represented a shared dedication to collaborative action across all governmental levels and agencies.
Contributors to the final report include Governor Josh Green, M.D., Mayor Rick Blangiardi, House Speaker Scott K. Saiki, Senate President Ronald D. Kouchi, Honolulu City Council Chair Tommy Waters, Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau, Board of Land and Natural Resources Chair Dawn N.S. Chang, and University of Hawaiʻi President David Lassner.
Over the past six months, the Red Hill WAI group met regularly to conduct research, listen to subject matter experts, and formulate recommended policies. A comprehensive plan has been finalized, which serves as a blueprint and living document outlining the necessary steps to clean up Red Hill and remediate the aquifer.
“We commend the Red Hill Water Alliance Initiative group for its diligent work on its final report that looks toward resolving this ongoing crisis. We want the public to know that we all will continue to insist on transparency and accountability beyond the defueling process, as all people who live in Hawaiʻi deserve pure, clean drinking water,” said Governor Josh Green, M.D. “It is incumbent upon all of us in positions of leadership in service to the people of Hawaiʻi to do everything in our power to collaborate with all stakeholders, toward the common goal of clean drinking water for our future generations,” he said.
"Throughout the past six months, we have been working on two fronts. First, a unified call for remediation of the aquifer, and second, creating an integrated approach to resolving the water crisis, while unifying State, City, and regulatory agencies," said House Speaker Scott K. Saiki. "The Red Hill WAI group recognizes that immediate action needs to happen to ensure clean water now and in the future for Hawaiʻi's residents.
“It is critical that Red Hill does not end up like Kaho‘olawe, where cleanup was promised but was not followed through,” said Senator Jarrett Keohokalole. “These efforts ensure that our expectation of the Navy is a restoration of our wai, and nothing less.”
"The Honolulu City Council and I have been honored to protect and fight for our state’s most precious resources alongside the dedicated and determined county, state, and federal teams who have held the safety of our people, our ‘āina, and our wai as their top priority from day one of this crisis. We stand ready to support the findings of the report and begin the process of remediating the aquifers and resolving the water crisis for our community now and for many future generations to come," said Council Chair Tommy Waters.
"It is urgent that a way forward be established to address the damages that the Red Hill fuel facility has inflicted on our ʻāina and wai. Long-term oversight, transparency, and accountability on this environmental crisis created by the Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility must be created to ensure that these resources will be remediated and available for generations to come. This report’s recommendations provide a starting place for this effort. Mahalo to our leaders for coming together to begin this process," said Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau.
PDF: Final Report
CB: Red Hill fuel-polluted soils could cost $750 million to clean up. The accumulation and spread of fuel poses an ongoing “existential threat” to the aquifer, located just 100 feet below the facility, the report said.
SA: Red Hill working group’s final report calls for aquifer remediation
SA: Editorial: DoD has duty to fix years of fuel leaks
SA: Focus on Red Hill is shifting to future after defueling