Star Advertiser: Threat of Red Hill fuel spill ignored

By Colleen Soares
September 27, 2017

The Red Hill water contamination issue is often on my mind, and all of us in Hawaii should be scared about the potential disaster awaiting if the 77-year-old fuel tanks are not shut down. Hawaii’s water is under threat, and we should not become complacent. The Environmental Protection Agency may soon have minimal resources given the current political climate, and Hawaii’s local government must step up to fill that void and ensure our safety.​ ​

The state Department of Health has the responsibility of protecting Hawaii’s drinking water supplies, and the public’s health from contamination. If you have read the history of the Camp Lejeune water contamination disaster in North Carolina, your complacency may be shaken (see The parallels with the Red Hill water contamination here on Oahu are disturbing.

Both Red Hill and Camp Lejeune involve many huge and old fuel storage tanks built in the 1940s, and buried underground near drinking water supplies. Camp Lejeune contamination happened over a long period of time between the 1950s and 1980s. Contamination was discovered and ignored in the 1980s, after repeated warnings by scientists. Repeated warnings were ignored and there was delay — some say stonewalling — on the part of the military, and cases are still being investigated and litigated today, decades later. The contamination has affected 1 million people who had lived at Camp Lejeune and are suffering a variety of deadly diseases.

With Red Hill, there is also delay, and lack of transparency. We do know that sometime before 2013, 27,000 gallons of jet fuel leaked from fuel tanks located above the Halawa aquifer. We know that “Environmental sampling over the years has shown a number of fuel releases dating back to 1947.” And we know that in 2015, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply found that the groundwater aquifer, “is contaminated to various levels from petroleum contaminants below and near the facility,” according to a 2015 TV news report.

In December 2014, a report to the state of Hawaii by the Red Hill Fuel Storage Facility Task Force noted this: “Each tank was originally built with a leak detection system that consisted of a series of pipes that could potentially collect any released fuel at a central location. The Navy later determined [in 1970] that this initial leak detection system had design flaws which resulted in numerous false reports. This system was subsequently removed.”

​As note​d above, the Navy later determined problems with the dete​​ction system, but the public needs to know about the false reports. Why were they deemed false and what did the reports say? Could it be that the reports showed a high leakage that was misread, unbelievable and thus ignored, like at Camp Lejeune? And, when was anot​her leak detection system put in place?

The Red Hill study noted that in 2008, $120,000 was spent researching secondary containment and leak detection technology options, but there is lack of transparency about a new leak detection system. Like Camp Lejeune, the potential disaster at Red Hill of a poisoned Hawaiian water supply and resulting deadly diseases, is being underplayed, delayed and ignored.

Colleen Soares has a Ph.D. in education and was a university professor for many years. She is also the current Chair of the Outings Committee for the Sierra Club O‘ahu Group.