Editorial: Moving fuel tanks the best option

EDITORIAL | OUR VIEW

Today  – Updated 6:20 pm

In January 2014, the Navy reported a 27,000-gallon leak at Tank 5 in its underground Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage that it later said was the result of poorly performed work by a contractor and the military’s own insufficient oversight.

The leak at the massive and aging facility, which can store up to 250 million gallons of petroleum for ships and jets, rightly continues to alarm the Honolulu Board of Water Supply (BWS), environmentalists and others as 18 operational tanks sit just 100 above Oahu’s sole source of potable water aquifer.

In the incident’s aftermath, the Navy entered into a legal agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health, sorting through several options for structural improve­- ments and upgrades at the World War II-era facility.

But with the EPA and DOH not yet signing off on a Navy proposal, state lawmakers are now weighing Senate Bill 2774, which aims to altogether scrap underground fixes at the site. The measure should be supported as it serves as the best option to date for protecting Oahu’s groundwater from contamination.

SB 2774 would ban, effective Jan. 1, 2028, operation of an “underground storage system with a capacity of 100,000 gallons or more,” in areas specified by the state, including Red Hill.

In testimony responding to the bill, Navy Region Hawaii asserted that ongoing testing, conducted by the Navy and BWS, shows that water drawn from the aquifer is meeting government-set safety standards, and stressed the importance of the gravity-fed funneling of fuel to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

Written testimony included an excerpt from a letter issued by U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s Major General Susan A. Davidson, who described Red Hill as a “strategic reserve” that holds a “significant percentage of petroleum war reserves required to defend national security interests in the Indo-Pacific region.” She added that there’s “no comparable U.S.-owned facility.”

While there’s no disputing the need for military fuel storage, unlimited use of Red Hill’s current site should not be an option. Studies document more than 30 leaks dating back to late 1940s, with the one reported in 2014 ranking as the largest.

The facility’s tanks — each big enough to encapsulate Aloha Tower — are buried above groundwater that’s tapped for drinking water, flowing to faucets from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai. The tanks are structurally sound today, but a large-scale leak of any sort could be ruinous. Cleanup could take decades or be deemed cost-prohibitive. Then what?

In November, Navy officials proposed a fix that ranked among the most protective and expensive of on-site options: installation of another layer of tank protection — a carbon steel secondary containment system. However, due to the size and unique structure of the tanks, the technology needed for such an upgrade is not readily available today.

While awaiting a tech catch-up, the Navy wants the EPA and the DOH to sign off on what’s likely the least-protective on-site option under consideration: sticking with the facility’s single-walled steel tank liners while adopting an improved program for cleaning, inspecting and repairing active tanks.

Should technology fail to emerge, the Navy would then remove all fuel from storage around the year 2045 — when the tanks would be about 100 years old. With the threat of tainted water looming larger as the facility ages, that’s too long to wait.

Testifying this week in support of SB 2774’s protection, Ernest Lau, BWS manager and chief engineer, said: “Our drinking water aquifer is the only one of its kind and cannot be replaced.” Red Hill can — and should — be replaced by a new facility in a location that poses no threat to the aquifer, nature’s gift.