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Navy fuel spill prompts broader look at Pacific readiness

Lawmakers say they'll seek funds to clean tainted drinking water in Hawaii

Hawaii Rep. Case wants Congress to pay to fix the fuel leaks tainting water in his district.
Hawaii Rep. Case wants Congress to pay to fix the fuel leaks tainting water in his district. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Congress wants fast fixes for a Navy fuel spill that has fouled the water in thousands of Hawaii homes, and the crisis has triggered broader questions about military logistics across the vast and increasingly tense Indo-Pacific region. 

The immediate concern is a series of fuel spills in recent years from the Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility on the island of Oahu — including a November release of some 14,000 gallons of fuel into the water used by more than 90,000 people. That release sickened thousands of residents with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea and forced several thousand families to spend the holidays in hotels that had safer water.

Some 250 million gallons of fuel have been ensconced underground since the 1940s at Red Hill, in 20 huge tanks that lie just 100 feet above an aquifer that provides 77 percent of Oahu’s potable water.

The Pacific Fleet, Navy and the Defense Department have launched assessments and investigations to get at what happened, how to deal with the fallout and whether a recurrence can be prevented at Red Hill, five admirals told a House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness hearing Tuesday. 

The Navy has shut down operation of the fuel tanks and closed the affected well and another one nearby. And the service has agreed to comply with a state order to begin the monthslong process of emptying the fuel tanks — at least temporarily if not permanently. 

More broadly, the disaster has forced key lawmakers to look more deeply into the future — not just at Red Hill but, across the so-called INDOPACOM region, at the best ways to store fuel and other key supplies safely, reliably and in a distributed way.

Michael Waltz of Florida, who was named this week as the new ranking Republican on the Readiness panel, said at the hearing that the U.S. military needs a “better positioned fuels strategy” that is “better aligned with our overall combatant commander war plans” as the U.S. and China vie for influence in the region.

He said the problem is not just World War II-era fuel tanks but “a World War II logistics strategy.”

California Democrat John Garamendi, chairman of the Readiness panel, said members have requested a classified briefing from Defense Department leaders in four to six weeks to address the near- and longer-term issues alike.

‘Meter is running’

Meanwhile, the cost of dealing with the crisis at hand is at least $250 million and counting, said Rear Adm. Blake Converse, deputy commander of the Pacific Fleet, at Tuesday’s hearing.

“Obviously, the meter is going to be running for a while,” replied Joe Courtney, D-Conn.

Ed Case, a Hawaii Democrat who represents Oahu, said the president’s fiscal 2023 budget needs to request “significant” sums for dealing with the fallout at Red Hill. 

Garamendi suggested that help should arrive sooner — via the forthcoming fiscal 2022 Defense spending bill.

Garamendi also vowed that the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act will contain provisions pertaining to the issue.

“I do not want another year to go by without the NDAA providing the specific authorities and money necessary to resolve this issue,” Garamendi said.

Series of fuel leaks

Even before the Japanese attack on nearby Pearl Harbor in 1941, the military recognized the vulnerability of above-ground tanks and decided to start building the underground storage facility at Red Hill in 1940, Garamendi said in his opening remarks.

But the underground tanks have posed a different kind of risk because of their proximity to the aquifer. The Red Hill tanks have leaked fuel into the ground or the groundwater several times in recent years. In 2014, Garamendi said, 27,000 gallons of fuel were accidentally spilled at Red Hill. The Navy spent “hundreds of millions of dollars” to upgrade the tanks and issued assurances that Oahu’s water was safe. 

“Unfortunately, as we have watched this crisis unfold over the last three months, it is apparent that that was not the case,” Garamendi said. 

Pacific Fleet admirals testified Tuesday that they are taking a series of actions to solve the problem. 

“The Navy caused this problem,” said Rear Adm. Blake Converse, the fleet’s deputy commander. “We own it, and we’re going to fix it.”

Facility problem, people problem or both?

None of the witnesses stated concretely what caused the November spill beyond “operator error.” And none of the lawmakers asked them to expand. 

But Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green told Hawaii News Now in December that he was informed that a cart had struck an underground fuel pipe that, it turned out, contained oil left over from an earlier 2021 spill. 

Capt. Bill Clinton, head of public affairs for the Pacific Fleet, said via email that he could not provide more information about the exact cause of the November spill.

“The command investigation is currently wrapping up and the results will be made public in the near future,” Clinton said. The results may be out this week, Converse testified.

Members and witnesses agreed at Tuesday’s hearing that they need clarity on how much of the Red Hill problem is due to something inherent in the installation as opposed to so-called operator error. 

To the degree that improperly trained personnel may have caused the problem, Virginia Democrat Elaine Luria, a Navy veteran, said it echoed other recent disasters where Navy ships have run aground or collided with other vessels at sea. 

She said the problem may be systemic across the Navy and not unique to Red Hill or any other facility or ship.

“Investigation after investigation after investigation has pointed out the shortfalls in our operating procedures, compliance and training,” she said. 

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