Navy Says ‘Operator Error’ Caused Hawaii Spill Fuel in Drinking Water

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A tour group listens to a brief at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility near Pearl Harbor. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Laurie Dexter.

How much fuel has leaked into the water that Navy families are drinking in Hawaii?

A lawyer for military families stationed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam told Coffee or Die Magazine that the only tool anyone needs to find out is a lighter.

“You can take a flame to it and you can see that it’s contaminated by how it reacts to the fire,” said Kristina Baehr, a lawyer for affected military families. “You can see it in the water. You can smell it, you can see it.”

Navy leaders faced questions from Congress Tuesday, Jan. 11, as lawmakers wanted to know just how polluted the drinking water in Hawaii had become in the wake of last fall’s fuel spill at the Red Hill Fuel Facility at Pearl Harbor. Rear Adm. Blake Converse told a congressional committee Tuesday that “operator error” was likely at fault, not a structural issue.

It has been months since families at Pearl Harbor began to report that their drinking water smelled and tasted like fuel. Only in recent weeks has the Navy admitted that a major fuel tank leaked. Red Hill is a World War II-era fuel storage facility with 20 underground steel fuel tanks carved into the basalt rock only 100 feet above the island of Oahu’s only freshwater aquifer. The facility is capable of storing up to 250 million gallons of fuel, while the aquifer supplies water to 93,000 people — 77% of the island’s drinking water.

Hawaii Navy fuel spill coffee or die

A Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility tour. Red Hill is a national strategic asset that provides fuel to operate in the Pacific. US Navy photo by Shannon Haney.

The fuel facility at Red Hill is composed of twenty tanks, each of which can hold 12.5 million gallons of jet fuel. It sits 100 feet above a freshwater aquifer that is vital to the ecosystem of Oahu. US Navy photo by Shannon Haney.

When families on the base near Honolulu began complaining about foul-smelling water and reporting to base doctors with symptoms such as diarrhea and skin rashes on Nov. 28, the Hawaii Department of Health issued an emergency order for the Navy to empty the tanks. While the Navy suspended operations at Red Hill and began to filter the affected water, it contested the emergency order in court and only began fully complying after the state’s deputy attorney general upheld the emergency order last Friday.

Converse, who is the deputy commander of the US Pacific Fleet, assured lawmakers that the Navy intends to follow every part of that order, including emptying the tanks. He also promised that no other water should be affected by the fuel spill. “The well has been isolated,” he said. “That will remain isolated until we’ve taken corrective action and actions are taken to establish a filtering system for the Red Hill shaft well.”

In the meantime, approximately 3,500 military families have been displaced from their contaminated housing since early December. The timeline presented by the Navy in the hearing indicated the families would be able to begin returning to their homes in late February, but given the families were originally told they would be back in their homes by Christmas, some are skeptical that timeline will hold.

Navy Hawaii fuel spill

Marine Lance Cpl. Kairaba Alidanburar, intelligence analyst, Combat Logistics Battalion 3, hands over a container of water to a resident of the Marine Corps Manana Housing Community, Pearl City, Hawaii, Dec. 13, 2021. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Samantha Sanchez.

And many families believe the Nov. 20 spill is only the largest and most recent incident that has been contaminating the water. Indeed, the admirals present at the hearing acknowledged another smaller leak in May.

Baehr says her clients are suffering from longer-term effects such as seizures, developmental delays, and reproductive issues that indicate this problem started before November. “They’ve said repeatedly that the exposure was brief, and that the health effects are fleeting. That is not true. Because we know that there was leakage at least in May and they’re just flushing the water now — here we are in January.”

On Tuesday, a panel of admirals faced questions from the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness, including pointed queries from Rep. Kai Kahele, who represents rural and suburban constituents on Oahu. Kahele took the opportunity to point out that three out of the 20 tanks at Red Hill have not been inspected for 40 years, and that multiple others in active use have not been inspected since the 1990s. On Nov. 20, 14,000 gallons of jet fuel spilled from one of those 20 tanks.

Rear Adm. Peter Stamatopoulos, commander of Naval Supply Systems Command, told Rep. Jackie Speier that there was a separate investigation in progress by the inspector general’s office that might include any formal complaints of safety issues reported between the two spills.

Hawaii Navy fuel spill coffee or die

US Marine Corps Col. Speros Koumparakis, commanding officer, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, poses with Kaialiʻi Kahele, congressman for Hawaii, on MCBH, Dec. 10, 2020. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Israel Ballaro.

U.S. Marine Corps Col. Speros Koumparakis, commanding officer, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, poses with Kaiali’i Kahele, congressman for Hawaii, on MCBH, Dec. 10, 2020. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Israel Ballaro.

The families’ mistrust of the Navy’s promises stems at least from the very beginning of the November incident, when the base commander, Capt. Erik Spitzer, made a public statement that the effect of the contamination was small. “My staff and I are drinking the water on base this morning, and many of my team live in housing and drink and use the water as well,” Spitzer told base residents. “There are no immediate indications that the water is not safe.”

“Unfortunately, at some point with a small amount of information and not the full scope of an understanding of the impact, he determined that the majority of the distribution system was saved, and it was impacting only a small number of residents,” Converse said in the hearing, blaming inaccuracy in the initial investigations of the spill. “He made that statement that evening. That was incorrect. He subsequently formally apologized for that assessment that he made on the ground based on the limited information he had.”

Converse then made what Rep. Mark Green described as an admission: “Were there miscues in communications? Yes. And was it impactful to our residents? Yes.”

Vice Adm. Yancy Lindsey, commander of Navy Installations Command, pointed out that in recent weeks the Navy has tried to improve its communication with local residents through social media, town halls, and a “very robust” website that he says posts all test results that have been validated by the Department of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“That’s the trust and the confidence that we’re working to rebuild with our families,” Lindsey said. “We understand that we impinged on that. And we take that seriously, and we are working diligently to restore it.”

Hawaii Navy fuel spill coffee or die

The Morale, Welfare and Recreation Office at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam stopped all food service in the wake of the fuel spill. Photo courtesy of Jamie Simic.

The Morale, Welfare and Recreation Office at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam stopped all food service in the wake of the fuel spill. Photo courtesy of Jamie Simic.

When Kahele pressed Stamatopoulos about whether the Navy could meet the emergency order’s Feb. 23 deadline for a third party to assess the facility and develop a plan, Stamatopoulos could only say that the Navy is working on it. “There are complexities that may require more detailed engineering analysis,” he told Kahele. “But there will be a high-level implementation plan to move forward.”

Baehr took issue with the claim that the Navy has made all relevant information available to the affected families. “The idea that there is a website out there, where all of this is clearly laid out, is not true for my clients,” she said. “They do not have their water results.”

And Baehr said her clients are being silenced when they try to speak up. “There is retaliation in a situation like this. There’s a tremendous amount of fear.”

But Baehr believes that her efforts to bring justice to her clients will ultimately be successful. “The Navy has essentially admitted liability,” she said. “They don’t appear to be blaming any third party. Someone breached the standard of care. That’s negligence.”

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Maggie BenZvi is a contributing editor for Coffee or Die. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago, a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University, and has worked for the ACLU as well as the International Rescue Commitee. She has also completed a summer journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In addition to her work at Coffee or Die, she’s a stay at home mom and, notably, does not drink coffee. Got a tip? Get in touch!
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