February 26, 2018
The existence of the Navy’s underground fuel storage facility at Red Hill — constructed during the World War II era — was a state secret until the early 1990s, when the tank farm was declassified. That disclosure prompted petroleum leak-related worries and other concerns about risks tied to the facility’s 20 aging fuel tanks — each large enough to swallow Aloha Tower. They’re perched just 100 feet above Oahu’s primary aquifer, which supplies drinking water to more than 400,000 residents, from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai.
In 1992, state legislation was enacted directing Hawaii’s Health Department to put in place rules requiring upgrade or replacement of underground storage tanks tethered to various public services and private businessess by late 1998. The law is part of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program that tasks states with setting standards for the EPA to enforce.
But in a misguided move, DOH exempted the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility from the deadline-driven lineup.
It now comes as a relief that a state judge has corrected that misstep. Ruling last week in favor of the Sierra Club in its lawsuit against the Health Department, Circuit Judge Jeffrey P. Crabtree put the matter succinctly: “The statute trumps the admin rule.”
The DOH has countered that it’s already in the process of adopting new rules that do not exempt the military, which it expects to begin enforcing in October. But the court’s opinion must spur the state to move faster — and push the Navy to pick up its pace in addressing needed Red Hill upgrades.
Concern about the facility’s potential to taint drinking water quality shot up in the aftermath of a 27,000-gallon fuel leak in January 2014. The next year, the Navy entered into an agreement with the EPA and the Health Department (site regulator) that requires it to research and evaluate structural upgrades to the concrete tanks, which are fitted with quarter-inch steel plates.
After much foot-dragging, in December, the Navy released a study that examines six options ranging from enhancing current maintenance and inspection to a potentially high-priced pick that involves creating a carbon steel tank within a tank. The EPA, Health Department and Navy are now using the study, along with community input and other studies, to select a final upgrade option.
The military needs the Red Hill facility’s flow of fuel to support vessels and aircraft in its Pacific theater. Rear Adm. Brian Fort, commander of Navy Region Hawaii, has pointed out that in the last 12 years more than $200 million has been spent to continue modernization, and that recent tests at monitoring wells and other sources “confirm our drinking water continues to be safe to drink.”
Oahu residents, however, are due for updated protections. Red Hill’s tanks are now nearly 80 years old. And studies document leaks dating back to late 1940s. In all, reports suggest there have been more than 30 leaks, with at least 170,000 gallons of fuel seeping away from tanks.
The Sierra Club is correct in contending that pace toward a better buffer against potential environmental and public health threats is too slow, particularly with looming EPA budget cuts expected under the Trump administration. Right now, we cannot rely heavily on the federal government to prioritize protections of our state’s natural environment.
After Wednesday’s ruling in Circuit Court, Marti Townsend, director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, said: “It’s time to fix up the Red Hill fuel tanks or shut them down.” Agreed. Four years have passed since the worrisome tank fuel leak that the Navy has blamed on poorly performed work by a contractor and the military branch’s own insufficient oversight.
It’s frustrating to see that the Navy and environmental regulators have yet to even settle on a satisfactory fix. A selection that prioritizes public safety should be made quickly.