Navy should start relocating Red Hill tanks

Honolulu Star-Advertiser, December 10, 2017
By Marti Townsend

If our enemies poisoned our drinking water, we would all be up in arms. But when the U.S. Navy pollutes our groundwater, it expects us to accept it in the name of national security. We should not and do not accept this. While national security is imperative, clean drinking water, in times of peace and in times of war, is crucial to the well-being of all. It must be protected, period.

The U.S. Navy’s World War II-era fuel tanks at Red Hill store millions of gallon of petroleum and sit only one hundred feet above Oahu’s primary groundwater aquifer.

In his column, “Red Hill 4 years later: Drinking water safe” (Star-Advertiser, Island Voices, Dec. 6), the newly installed Rear Adm. Brian Fort describes the Red Hill facility as “an amazing engineering wonder.” The only thing “amazing” about the Red Hill facility is that within five years of its construction, it was already leaking massive amounts of petroleum into our groundwater.

According to a Sept. 10, 1948, memorandum to the Public Works Office of Pearl Harbor, Tank No. 16 “was leaking at the rate of approximately 13 barrels per day.” In May 1949, Bechtel Corporation measured leak rates of 37 barrels per day. Amazing. All told, a conservative estimate based on naval reports puts the total petroleum products leaked at over 200,000 gallons since 1943.

In January 2014, the Navy admitted to spilling 27,000 more gallons of fuel into the ground.

Our Board of Water Supply cautions that the “amount of petroleum contamination in the groundwater underneath Tank 5 is rising.” Total petroleum hydrocarbons have measured as high as 6,300 micrograms per liter in the groundwater underneath the Red Hill fuel tanks. The state Health Department calls for action at far lower amounts of contamination: 400 micrograms per liter. Benzene, a carcinogen, is also being detected in wells near the Red Hill facility.

The Health Department admitted that storing up to 187 million gallons of fuel, a mere 100 feet above Oahu’s drinking water resource, is “inherently dangerous.” In a 2014 report to the Legislature, the Health Department argued that the operation of this facility should only exist on the condition that the facility “be upgraded with secondary containment,” but the state has refused to enforce this standard.

The U.S. Navy admits to already spending more than $200 million on “modernization” of this facility, and still there is no guarantee that it won’t leak again or that if it does they could clean it up.

Looking at these facts, it is amazing this situation has been allowed to continue for so long.

The rear admiral’s platitudes to trust the Navy rings hollow in the context of repeated sub-standard work product delivered as part of the current consent decree, emphasis on secretive non-disclosure agreements over transparency and good data gathering, and multiple missed neighborhood board meetings.

Given the close proximity of the Red Hill fuel tanks to our aquifer, the amount of petroleum that has already leaked, and the alarming amount of fuel still stored at Red Hill, the Navy should be working to relocate these tanks now.

It is frustrating the Navy appears to be spending more time and money on public relations to defend a bad idea whose time has passed, than on investigating better ways to store its fuel.

Efforts to defend U.S. national security should not pose an inherent threat to the safety of Hawaii’s public health and natural resources.