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Hawaii official agrees Navy must remove fuel from tanks

December 28, 2021 GMT

HONOLULU (AP) — A Hawaii state official on Monday agreed that the Navy should be required to remove fuel from massive fuel tanks it owns near Pearl Harbor, saying they pose “a metaphorical ticking time bomb” threatening the water supply of the state’s most populous island.

Deputy Attorney General David Day led two days of hearings for the Department of Health last week before making his recommendation. The Navy had appealed an earlier order from Gov. David Ige to defuel the tanks.

“The evidence shows that the Red Hill Facility is simply too old, too poorly designed, too difficult to maintain, too difficult to inspect, along with being too large to prevent future releases,” wrote Day in his recommendation.

Department of Health Deputy Director Marian Tsuji will consider Day’s recommendation when making a final decision. The Navy, the Sierra Club of Hawaii and Honolulu’s water utility have until Wednesday to object to Day’s recommendations.

The Navy didn’t immediately comment on the substance of Day’s findings.

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“We are aware of the proposed decision and have no further statement at this time,” said Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, the Navy’s chief of information.

The governor ordered the Navy to remove the fuel after fuel leaked from the facility last month and contaminated the Navy’s tap water system serving some 93,000 people in and around Pearl Harbor.

Starting in late November, about a thousand people in military housing complained their water smelled like fuel, and hundreds complained of nausea, rashes and other physical ailments.

More than 3,000 military families have had to move to hotels or other alternative housing for the past several weeks because they have been unable to use the water in their homes.

Day included his recommendations in a 32-page report that said the Red Hill facility poses “an imminent threat to human health and safety or the environment.”

He said there have been at least 76 fuel-releasing incidents involving nearly 200,000 gallons (757,082 liters) since the tanks were built in the early 1940s.

The evidence presented at the hearing indicated more releases of fuel are “basically inevitable,” he said.

During the hearing, he said, the Navy offered a “working theory” regarding how its water system became contaminated last month. That theory posited that jet fuel released during the refilling of Tank 20 on May 6 got into the facility’s fire suppression system. This fire suppression system then leaked the liquid in November, according to the theory.

“The Navy did not state with any exacting reliability a full picture of what happened, or why and how the release occurred,” Day wrote.

He said the November release demonstrated that “the problems within the Red Hill Facility, as it is currently situated, are beyond the Navy’s ability to control.”

Day wrote the tanks threaten more than the Navy’s own water system, noting the Navy and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply share the aquifer that sits under the fuel tanks.

This aquifer, Day said, supplies 77% of Oahu’s overall water supply. The island has no alternative drinking water source, or combination of sources, that could supply 50% or more of Honolulu’s drinking water, he said.