Oahu’s primary drinking water aquifer — tapped to serve more than 400,000 residents, from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai — is situated just 100 feet below the Navy’s aging Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility, which maintains a continuous supply of petroleum to fuel ships and jets.
The threat of petrochemicals leaking from the military’s colossal World War II-era underground tanks and tainting our high-quality groundwater seems to loom a bit larger with each passing year. Longtime worries spiked in 2014, when 27,000 gallons of fuel leaked from one tank.
The seepage — caused by contractor error and poor Navy oversight, not crumbling structure — rightly touched off community clamor for a long-term plan to significantly reduce the risk of future releases. Because the tanks can hold a total of up to nearly 200 million gallons of fuel, the risk level should be alarming to residents and government officials.
Cleanup in the aftermath of a large-scale leak at the site, near Pearl Harbor, could take decades or be deemed cost-prohibitive. It’s both disappointing and worrisome, then, that the Navy’s long-awaited long-term plan to address risk calls for little more than maintaining the status quo.
In 2015, the Navy entered into an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Health Department that required it to research and evaluate the need for structural improvements to the concrete tanks — 18 of the site’s 20 tanks are in operation — and assess other upgrade options.
Last week, the Navy announced that it is recommending what’s likely the least-protective site improvement option under consideration: sticking with the facility’s single-walled steel tank liners. It also intends to permanently adopt its program for cleaning, inspecting and repairing the tanks; and plans to decommission tank nozzles, put protective coatings on the tanks and implement improved monitoring in the event of a spill.
That recommendation, which needs approval from state and federal regulators, should be rejected, as the island’s key freshwater aquifer deserves better protection.
Honolulu’s City Council weighed in on the matter in March, passing a resolution urging the the EPA and Health Department to sign off on nothing short of installation if a double-wall, or secondary containment option for each tank; or consider relocation away from the aquifer.
The resolution echoes compelling arguments made by Honolulu’s Board of Water Supply (BWS), which manages municipal water resources and distribution. The agency points out that in addition to triggering environmental and public health concerns, fuel contamination would likely hit water-consumer pocketbooks.
Should a catastrophic tank release occur — caused by an earthquake, for example — BWS rates would have to increase to pay for treatment to remove the contaminants from the water. What’s more, should wells near the aquifer close down for fixes, the agency’s other wells do not have the capacity to fill the gap in service, which could result in water moratoriums.
For its part, the Navy has countered that in the past five years it has stepped up “prevention, detection and mitigation measures to ensure the facility is operated safely and to protect against a potential release of fuel.”
Navy Capt. Marc Delao, commanding officer of Naval Facilities Engineering Command Hawaii, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in an email statement last week: “Analysis shows that the other tank upgrade alternatives provide minimal reduction to risk while requiring significant additional cost to taxpayers.”
That cost-benefit scrutiny pencils out, from the Navy’s perspective. But for Oahu, the bottom line is that the aquifer is the only one of its kind here. It is priceless, as it cannot be replaced or relocated. The fuel tanks can.