Legislation seeks commitment to Red Hill

Honolulu Star Advertiser - February 18, 2017
William Cole

Hawaii’s congressional delegation is weighing in on the Red Hill fuel farm, saying in proposed legislation that the “sense of Congress” is that the facility is a “national strategic asset” whose relocation or closure would undermine Pacific security and strategy.

The lawmakers are calling for “sustained” federal commitment to see through fixes to be agreed to by the Navy, state Health Department, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Defense Logistics Agency.

Senate Bill 437, introduced Thursday by U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, requires the Defense Department and EPA to include funding to make identified improvements at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, his office said. A companion bill was introduced in the House by U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.

“The EPA, the Navy and the state agree that protecting the aquifer that supplies Oahu’s drinking water is essential,” Schatz said in a release. “Our bill firms up that commitment into federal law by making sure the agencies responsible for improving Red Hill have the federal funding they need to implement the actions that are agreed to.”

Hanabusa’s bill notes that Red Hill “directly supports” vessels and aircraft of the Navy and Air Force, Pacific theater, Hawaii National Guard and Coast Guard, and allows the United States to maintain a forward presence, ensure maritime security and maintain regional stability.

“If the facility were closed, the United States armed forces would be unable to support the national military strategy, including the goals of the United States Pacific commander, and national security interests would be significantly undermined,” the bill states.

Alternatively, moving the facility elsewhere in the Indo-Asia-Pacific would have “implications for the United States military force structure in the state of Hawaii and put at risk billions of dollars in annual economic activity that the armed forces bring to the state of Hawaii.”

The lawmakers acknowledge there have been more than 30 leaks at Red Hill dating back to 1947 with reports suggesting at least 170,000 gallons of fuel have leaked since the facility began operating.

But the Navy and Defense Logistics Agency “have kept the drinking water safe through 70 years of operation,” and the “Administrative Order on Consent” involving the Navy, state Health Department, EPA and Defense Logistics Agency already is working through Red Hill infrastructure options, the lawmakers said.

The proposed federal legislation comes amid state consideration of Senate Bill 1259, which would require the Red Hill fuel tanks to have secondary, or double-­walled, containment by 2027, or closure by 2030 if that is not possible.

The Navy said the World War II-era steel-lined and concrete-encased tanks are not leaking, with testing confirming that drinking water from the Red Hill shaft is safe.

Red Hill has 20 underground tanks, each able to contain up to 12.5 million gallons of fuel. The facility is the state’s largest field-constructed underground tank system and stores more fuel in a single location — up to 187 million gallons per day — than any other underground tank system in Hawaii, according to the state bill.

The state Health Department said in written testimony on state Senate Bill 1259 that its “top priority is the protection of public health and the environment,” but “due to the unprecedented and massive scale of this project, rushing to implement secondary containment may actually not result in the best practicable solution.”

The Administrative Order on Consent established after a 27,000-­gallon fuel leak in 2014 at Red Hill to minimize the threat of future releases “remains the best and most comprehensive path forward” to protect drinking water, the Health Department said.

The Navy said Feb. 10 that it “may be exempt” from the type of underground fuel storage tanks that are targeted in the state bill.

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply said in December that although sampling indicates that drinking water remains safe, fuel impacts “to the groundwater beneath the underground storage tanks at the facility pose an unacceptable risk” to drinking water.

“There is no reasonable basis” for the military not to consider tank replacement and relocation as alternatives to upgrading the facility, the Water Board said.

Behind the state bill is the accusation that the Navy has been dragging its feet on added protection of drinking water sources near Red Hill.

“The Navy has had three full years since the latest spill to build public confidence through quick, deliberate actions that bring these tanks in line with current expectations for all underground storage tanks. That hasn’t happened,” said state Sen. Mike Gabbard, who introduced the bill. “SB 1259 will ensure that the needed fuel tank improvements are made at Red Hill in a quicker fashion to protect our drinking water supply for future generations.”