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Navy says it still doesn’t know cause of the latest leak at Red Hill l fuel facility

AIEA, Hawaii (Jun. 13, 2022) Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro is shown some of the items highlighted in the third-party assessment of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Hawaii. Prior to visiting the Oceania region later this week, Del Toro is in Hawaii to speak at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies and meet with local government and community leaders. (U.S. Navy Photo by Capt. Jereal Dorsey)

Sophie Cocke

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser


Dec. 1—The Navy continues to conduct cleanup operations at its Red Hill fuel facility where an estimated 1, 100 gallons of concentrated fire suppressant containing hazardous chemicals was released into the ground.

The Navy continues to conduct cleanup operations at its Red Hill fuel facility where an estimated 1, 100 gallons of concentrated fire suppressant containing hazardous chemicals was released into the ground.

Between 35 and 50 workers have been at the site nonstop since the spill was discovered at 1 p.m. Tuesday, removing asphalt and concrete, digging up soil and sopping up fluid with absorbent pads, according to Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett, commander of Navy Region Hawaii, who briefed reporters during a Wednesday news conference. As of Wednesday morning, approximately 150 cubic feet of soil had been removed and was being stored in 131 55-gallon drums.

Barnett said that the Navy, in coordination with the state Department of Health and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will be testing to see how far down the fire suppressant, called aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, might have leached into the ground. Navy officials said they are hopeful that the contamination hasn’t sunk below more than 6 inches of soil.

Navy Rear Adm. John Wade, commander of the Joint Task Force-Red Hill, said that he had briefed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro about the spill.

“The Department of Defense, and I personally, absolutely understand the state’s and the community’s concerns regarding this incident, ” said Wade. “They are absolutely valid, especially within the context of what’s happened in the last year.”

The spill attracted instant outrage from the state Department of Health, which regulates the facility, environmentalists and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply.

BWS Manager and Chief Engineer Ernie Lau, in an emotional news conference Wednesday, demanded that the Navy begin regularly testing groundwater monitoring wells for the presence of PFAS, dangerous chemicals found in AFFF, that are referred to as “forever chemicals ” because of the time it takes them to degrade in the environment.

Lau said he asked the Navy six months ago to test for PFAS in the water.

“So I’m not asking anymore, I’m demanding, ” said Lau. “We have a right to know what’s stored there and being used at Red Hill, in addition to the 104 million gallons of petroleum. We want to know what kind of chemicals are being stored there and used at that facility that could be a risk to the environment.”

In a letter to the DOH and EPA, Lau called on the agencies to require the Navy to begin weekly tests for PFAS at its groundwater monitoring wells and disclose all previous uses of AFFF and other PFAS compounds at the facility.

DOH said that it has required the Navy to submit a plan for testing for PFAS in soil and groundwater.

Plagued with problems The Navy says it still doesn’t know what caused the spill or exactly when it started. Officials say a worker noticed the leak from a pipeline at around 1 p.m. Tuesday and that federal firefighters and response teams were notified immediately. All 1, 100 gallons of concentrated fire suppressant contained in an above ground tank that supplies the pipelines of the AFFF system leaked out.

“What we do know is that there was maintenance on the AFFF system. We do know that there was a release of the AFFF concentrate, ” said Wade. “We don’t know why that was released. We also don’t know why … that AFFF came out of what appears to be a vent on that line just right near the tunnel entrance.”

The fire suppressant is used to contain fuel fires, and when deployed, turns into foam.

The Navy’s fire suppression system has had problems for years and was a major factor in last year’s fuel spill at Red Hill that contaminated the aquifer and the Navy’s drinking water system, sickening military families.

On May 6, 2021, fuel leaked from a Red Hill pipe during a fuel transfer. About 19, 000 gallons of the fuel was sucked up into a pipeline that’s supposed to reclaim AFFF after it’s deployed during a fire. That fuel, unbeknownst to workers, then sat in the pipeline for months until it was hit by a trolley car in November and burst, spewing fuel into a tunnel for hours.

A subsequent investigation into the leak found that Navy officials had erred in installing PVC piping instead of steel throughout their new fire suppression system. After recognizing the error in 2017, instead of fixing it, the Navy chose to save on costs and replace only a small portion of the PVC piping.

If the pipeline that broke last year had been made of steel, the fuel spill likely would have been averted, according to the investigation.

A third-party contractor hired to conduct an assessment of the facility earlier this year also found that the AFFF system needed to undergo major repairs before 104 million gallons of fuel can be safely drained from the facility. The Navy is currently in the process of permanently closing Red Hill and anticipates defueling in 2024.

Navy officials said that the pipeline from which the AFFF leaked was made of steel and not PVC. Cameron Geertsema, commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command, said that on the morning of the spill contractors had begun working on infrared sensors, which activate the fire suppression system when they detect heat.

Navy officials said that they weren’t ready to say whether that may have contributed to the AFFF spill.

BWS demands action Ever since last year’s fuel contamination, top Navy officials have pledged transparency. But BWS’ Lau told reporters on Wednesday that the Navy did not contact him until six hours after the spill when Adm. Jeff Killian of Naval Facilities Command Pacific reached out to him personally.

“He did that on his own, and prior to that I had attempted to reach out to Adm. Wade, ” said Lau. “So the timelines for informing stakeholders and the regulatory agency should be shorter.”

Officials with the military and DOH said that there was no reason to believe that the PFAS poses a threat to the drinking water at this time, but BWS officials say they’re concerned it eventually could seep into the aquifer.

“Our experience has been that something that gets into the environment can get into the drinking water, ” said BWS Deputy Manager Erwin Kawata. “So I think that should be supported by doing some testing. Go out, start doing some testing, do some monitoring out there … start evaluating what you’re actually seeing in the environment, and then make your conclusions based on that.

“You have to keep monitoring to see if you have any kind of increases and then from there, once you start seeing the increases, then you have to start preparing for treatment, ” said Kawata. “Either that or look for an alternative water source. That’s all that’s available.”

Lau said the incident occurred about a mile away from the water board’s Halawa Shaft. The agency shut down the shaft as a precaution to prevent the spread of contamination from the Navy’s Red Hill shaft. The shutdown exacerbated water shortages Oahu already faced this summer from drought.

“This is a step in the wrong direction in trying to turn Halawa shaft back online, ” said Lau.

In 2023 the EPA will begin requiring testing for PFAS in water supplies. BWS officials said they began tests two years ago in preparation for new testing. Two years ago they found minute traces in their water.

“It’s also present in your normal consumer products, ” said Kawata. “So that’s one of the things that EPA is trying to really better assess, the extent to which it is present in the environment.”

AFFF is what’s known as a Class 2 firefighting foam that’s used to put out fuel fires. Trying to put out fuel fires with water carries the risk of spreading the burning fuel around and potentially worsening the situation. Several military installations store Class 2 firefighting chemicals, many of which contain PFAS. In recent years, high levels of PFAS have been found in military water systems that have been linked to serious health problems, notably at Camp Lejune in North Carolina.

Lau said there are alternatives to using AFFF that contains PFAS. “There are options for them to convert to safer firefighting foam systems and they should consider that, ” he said.


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