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U.S. Navy Confirms Fuel in Water Well Near Aging Red Hill Tank Farm

red hill hawaii
Interior of one of the 20 Red Hill fuel tanks (Hawaii Department of Public Health)

Published Dec 5, 2021 4:32 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy's controversial Red Hill tank farm appears to have leaked petroleum into a Navy water supply well near Honolulu, the service confirmed in a statement Friday. 

Days after Navy servicemembers began reporting a foul diesel smell in their tapwater and the local health department found petroleum in the water at a nearby school, the Navy said that it had confirmed the presence of volatile petroleum products in its Red Hill potable water well.

Though the service did not conclusively connect the contamination to the tank farm, the aging Red Hill facility recently leaked 14,000 gallons of fuel/water mixture from a drain line at the site. 

The wellwater samples were taken on November 29 and sent to a laboratory on the mainland for testing. The results of the Red Hill sample showed hydrocarbons roughly four to ten times below the Hawaii Department of Health's Environmental Action Level (EAL), the service said, though it did not disclose the exact results in parts per million. The Navy conducted a separate test that confirmed vapors, another indication of hydrocarbon content.

According to the test results, the water quality from a different well site located several miles away remains safe for use under state and federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. The contaminated well has been shut down. 

The Navy is now developing a plan to "restore its potable water system to EPA standards," identify how the contaminant got into the well and mitigate the problem. In the interim, 93,000 people who are served by the Navy's water system have been advised by the state that they should not use the tapwater. 

The well was shut down on Sunday, but local residents were not informed until a town hall on Thursday evening. "It was the closest shaft to folks who reported petroleum smells, sheens in their water and taste in their water so the logical source was the Red Hill shaft," U.S. Pacific Fleet Deputy Commander Blake Converse said at the meeting.

The recent spill and the fuel in the water have renewed calls to permanently shut down the underground tank farm. Red Hill was built in the 1940s, and though the Navy has a plan for renewing the aging steel linings on its 20 underground tanks, it has not convinced critics that it can be made leak-proof. The site is located just 100 feet above Honolulu's freshwater aquifer. 

"This is totally unacceptable. They said this would never happen," said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI). "This has to be treated like a nuclear reactor, not a piece of old infrastructure. It needs better staff, more staff. It needs the EPA to be integrated into the process."

"I think the [State] Department of Health ought to close the place down," former Hawaii Gov. John Waihee told Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "How much more do you need to do to demonstrate that those facilities are no longer viable, period?"

In 2020, facilities officers at Pacific Fleet were accused of hiding information from state regulators about active fuel leaks from Red Hill's pipeline network at Pearl Harbor. Internal emails showed that they were aware of evidence of an active pipeline leak near the USS Arizona Memorial. The evidence included a failed pipeline test and the expert opinion of a spill response contractor. Email correspondence showed that officers were concerned that any public disclosure of a leak would impact an ongoing application for renewing Red Hill's state operating permit; the Navy did not disclose the leak until months later, after the permit hearings had concluded.