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Report: Contractor Error, Limited Oversight Caused Red Hill AFFF Spill

Red Hill
Cleanup crew removes contaminated soil and asphalt from the area outside Red Hill Adit 6, December 2022 (USN)

Published May 7, 2023 8:22 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy has released a report into the spill of toxic AFFF concentrate at its troubled Red Hill fuel storage facility, located just uphill from Pearl Harbor. 

On November 29, the U.S. Navy's Joint Task Force Red Hill notified regulators that a fixed firefighting system located just inside a tunnel entrance had leaked 1300 gallons of AFFF firefighting foam concentrate into the soil. AFFF contains polyfluorinated substances (PFAS), also known as "forever chemicals" for their non-biodegradable nature. This class of contaminants is one of the Defense Department's biggest environmental liabilities, thanks to its suspected carcinogenic potential and ubiquitous use. 

According to the task force's report, a contractor - Kinetix - made two errors while performing maintenance on the firefighting system inside the Adit 6 tunnel. First, its technicians improperly installed an air vacuum valve on the unit by connecting a drain line to the wrong outlet, effectively bypassing the valve. Seven months later, the firm's technicians returned to conduct a test. However, they failed to disable or lock-out the AFFF concentrate pumps from automatically starting. When they began a sensor test, the pumps turned on and pumped 1,300 gallons of AFFF past the valve, out the drain line and onto the concrete floor of the tunnel. 

Initially, Red Hill task force commander Rear Adm. John Wade told local media that there were no CCTV cameras nearby to capture the event. Later that week, the Navy acknowledged that there were indeed two cameras nearby, and that one of them had captured footage. That footage was released Friday, and shows the spill and the beginnings of the cleanup operation.=

The spill was the latest in a long series at Red Hill, which has been shut down over groundwater contamination concerns and is slated for decommissioning over the next few years. The AFFF release drew condemnation from Hawaii's political leadership, who led the push to get the Pentagon to order the site's closure. 

"When incident after incident is the result of 'human error,' there comes a time when we need to recognize that there are systemic problems," said Rep. Jill Tokuda (D-HI) in a statement. "The Navy needs to act now to hold people accountable for this spill and ensure that its continued work to remediate and close Red Hill meets the standards of quality and safety that the people of Hawaii deserve." 

In a statement accompanying the command investigation, Vice Adm. Wade agreed that there were systemic safety issues at Red Hill that would need to be addressed.  

"The unfortunate, yet avoidable inadvertent discharge of AFFF concentrate at Red Hill was a significant setback in that it further eroded public trust in the aftermath of the 2021 fuel spills and resulting water crisis. It also raised valid concerns about safety and highlighted the need to identify and effectively address the underlying risks in all aspects of operations at Red Hill," Wade wrote.