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Editorial: Red Hill fuel tanks need swift action

  • Jan. 29, 2021

Situated just 100 feet above Oahu’s primary aquifer, which supplies drinking water to residents from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai, is the Navy’s massive Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility, which stores up to 250 million gallons of petroleum to fuel ships and jets at nearby Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

In seeking a state permit to continue fuel-farm operations, the Navy has pointed out that in nearly 80 years of continuous operation, the facility’s 20 vertically arrayed tanks “never caused any impact to drinking water resources.”

Even so, the very age of the tanks grows more worrisome with each passing year. And in the aftermath of a 27,000-gallon fuel leak in January 2014, Red Hill’s critics — notably Honolulu’s Board of Water Supply (BWS) and the Sierra Club Hawaii — make a compelling argument that continued foot-dragging toward dramatic tank upgrades or relocation, correlates with an increasing threat to our water source.

For most of us, delivery of water from aquifer to kitchen sink is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind matter. But that could change overnight in the event of a disastrous underground spill — one that would bring daunting environmental and economic damage.

The Navy’s application to secure a five-year state Department of Health (DOH) permit is slated for debate next week in a contested case hearing. It’s a welcome opportunity for the state to weigh imposing more short-term protections and spur progress toward a long-term fix.

In a pre-hearing memorandum, the BWS rightly pointed out that the issues to be decided are deserving of front-and-center community attention because they hold potential to “dictate whether Oahu’s water, the most critical resource issue of our lifetime and our children’s lifetime, will be protected or put at dire risk of contamination.”

Red Hill’s safeguards should be continually scrutinized at all government levels — county to state to federal.

Also, the water board maintained that over several decades there have been at least 72 “fuel release incidents” at Red Hill involving more than 175,000 gallons of fuel, and called for either immediate relocation of the tanks or upgrading the single-wall tanks to a system of “tank-within­-a-tank secondary containment.”

After the 2014 fuel leak, the Navy signed an administrative order of consent, or AOC, allotting it time to study and fix the problem at the site or relocate the tanks. It’s an enforceable agreement with the DOH and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency serving as regulators.

In a September 2019 document, the Navy said, in the long run, it wanted to implement “double-wall equivalency secondary containment” — or remove fuel, with a deadline set around the year 2045. But in the case of removal, allowing decades to pass before fully completing the job seems a chancy proposition, as the tanks would then be about 100 years old.

In an encouraging recent statement, the Navy said that although the price tag for double-wall technology appeared to be too steep to be deemed “fiscally responsible” in its view, the Navy is “committed” to the secondary containment option. Previously, it estimated the cheapest single-wall upgrade would cost about $180 million, while the tank-within-a-tank option was in the $2 billion-to-$5 billion range. And relocation to a new underground site would run as much as $10 billion.

Hawaii has long had a symbiotic, albeit sometimes uneasy, relationship with military operations here. In this case, the military needs the land at Red Hill to fuel support vessels and aircraft in its Pacific theater. And in just the last five years, according to Naval Facilities Engineering Command Hawaii, the Defense Department has spent $218 million modernizing Red Hill.

At Red Hill’s upcoming contested case hearing, both sides must place a high priority on the priceless value of our irreplaceable aquifer and pure drinking water.

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