Health director wants Navy to move Red Hill fuel tanks

By Sophie Cocke April 12, 2019 Updated April 12, 2019 12:32am

State Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson is urging the Navy to relocate its underground fuel storage facility at Red Hill away from a major source of Oahu’s drinking water. To that end, he’s hoping the Navy will agree to reopening a legal agreement entered into in 2015 following a fuel leak at one of its Red Hill fuel tanks. But there is no sign yet that the Navy is willing to do so.

Anderson told lawmakers Thursday that the state has no power to force the Navy to move the tanks, which sit just 100 feet above a major aquifer. But he said that amending the legal agreement, known as an administrative order of consent (AOC), could make that option more likely. The agreement lays out steps the Navy must take to address fuel releases and increase tank safety.

“Storing this much fuel above our drinking water is not an acceptable option in the long run. In the short run we really don’t have an option,” Anderson said during a joint informational briefing before the House Committee on Health and House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection.

Anderson said he was particularly worried that an earthquake or other event could result in a catastrophic spill.

“If we had a major release — and again, each of those tanks holds 20 million gallons of fuel, and there are 20 of them — they would contaminate our aquifer, and there is no way we could clean it up. … It is just practically impossible to think that you can clean up a spill of that magnitude,” he told lawmakers.

Anderson also said it could be cost-effective in the long run for the Navy to relocate the tanks, particularly if its fuel needs decline, which the Navy is currently studying. He estimated that the repair and maintenance costs of the tanks alone over 20 years is about $1.6 billion, a cost that could compare favorably to building a new facility.

Honolulu Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernie Lau agreed with Anderson and said there needs to be a greater sense of urgency in addressing the tank situation. It’s now been five years since 27,000 gallons of fuel spilled from one of the Red Hill tanks.

“Time is of the essence,” said Lau. “We need to move as fast as we possibly can.”

But it’s unlikely that the Navy would agree to revisiting the regulatory agreement, Mark Manfredi, Navy Region Hawaii’s program director for the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser after the hearing. He said the Navy feels confident that the tanks are safe where they are.

“It’s not something that we are ready to commit to. We are pretty confident that we can continue to maintain these tanks,” Manfredi said. “From everything that we’ve looked at to date, no kidding, we don’t see like, ‘Oh my gosh, they are only going to last another 20 years.’ No, we don’t see an end life yet to these tanks.”

Manfredi said it wasn’t up to him to decide whether to reopen the AOC, which was also signed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Defense Logistics Agency. Still, said Manfredi, “I would say no.”

“I would say that currently we think the AOC, as it’s currently written, is a good document,” he said. “It puts us under very tight scrutiny, more than we ever had before from a regulatory perspective under the Department of Health and the EPA.”