Hawaii lawmakers see Pentagon ‘betrayal’ on fuel leaks

The Pentagon is contesting a state order to drain fuel tanks linked to leaks that contaminated drinking water on Oahu.

Hawaii Rep. Kahele says the Navy should shut down its Red Hill fuel storage facility if it's "incapable of being a good neighbor." (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Hawaii Rep. Kahele says the Navy should shut down its Red Hill fuel storage facility if it's "incapable of being a good neighbor." (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 1, 2022 at 3:28pm

Hawaii's members of Congress expressed deep skepticism Tuesday about the Defense Department's motivations in contesting in court their state’s order that the Navy empty fuel from tanks on Oahu that have repeatedly leaked and sickened residents. 

Fuel from the Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam leaked most recently in November, forcing thousands of residents out of their homes for the holidays and leaving many ill with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.   

The state health department, in response, proposed an order in December that the tanks be emptied, at least temporarily. The Navy filed an objection to the order that month in which a service attorney wrote that the harm was not imminent and the state was exceeding its authority, according to Honolulu Civil Beat, a news site. Then, at a January hearing of a House Armed Services panel, a top Navy admiral said the service was complying with the order to defuel after all.

Yet, on Monday night, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks announced that the Pentagon would, in fact, fight Hawaii’s order in court. 

A delegation’s outrage

Members of Hawaii’s four-member, all-Democrat congressional delegation expressed varying degrees of outrage Tuesday about Hicks’s decision. Each of the lawmakers serves on a key Pentagon oversight panel.

“Fortunately, we have civilian oversight of the military, and this inexplicable and maddening resistance to the defuel order will not succeed,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, in a statement. “They will lose in court, and they will lose in Congress.”

Rep. Kai Kahele, a member of the Armed Services Committee, called the Navy’s decision a “betrayal” of Hawaii residents.

“If they are incapable of being a good neighbor and stewards of our environment, they must shut down Red Hill,” Kahele said in a statement. 

Rep. Ed Case, a member of the Appropriations Military Construction-VA panel, promised to “do everything I can to fully effectuate the order and, if necessary, to confirm that Hawaii and any other state is legally entitled to protect its drinking water.”

And Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, a member of that chamber’s Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that she spoke with Hicks on Monday night and was warily watching what comes next.

“I will oppose any appeal by DoD that challenges the State’s authority to regulate Red Hill operations,” Hirono said. “I will continue to hold the Navy accountable for complying with the requirement to develop a safe defueling plan while the DoD works with the State to develop a long-term solution for Red Hill.”

‘Lawful order’

At issue is just the latest in a series of fuel leaks from the Red Hill facility. The November leak of some 14,000 gallons of fuel contaminated the drinking water supply used by 93,000 residents near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Officials have not announced their determination on the precise cause. 

The Red Hill facility holds about 250 million gallons of fuel in the 20 underground tanks that lie just 100 feet above an aquifer that provides 77 percent of Oahu’s potable water.

At a House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee hearing last month, five top admirals said the Navy has shut down operation of the tanks, at least for now.

What's more, the admirals said, they are decontaminating the water supply.

And the deputy commander of the Pacific Fleet, Rear Adm. Blake Converse, testified that the Navy is complying with the state’s “lawful order” to defuel the tanks. But Converse said he did not know if the Pentagon would contest the order in court. 

On Monday evening, Hicks unveiled the department’s decision to do just that.

But she cast the legal maneuver as a way to buy time for more deliberate consideration of the path ahead at Red Hill and in the broader context of Indo-Pacific logistics. 

“This will afford us time to make evidence-based and transparent decisions,” Hicks said. 

“And we have launched a thorough review of the facility’s long-term future, to include the option of permanently defueling Red Hill,” Hicks added.

However, Hawaii’s deputy director of environmental health, Kathleen Ho, issued a statement Monday calling the Pentagon’s decision “a breach of trust” with Hawaii residents. 

“We will continue our fight in court to force the Navy to render the Red Hill facility safe,” Ho said. 

A history of assurances

Michael Waltz of Florida, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee's Readiness panel, said Red Hill is central to U.S. military fuel supplies in the region patrolled by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, or INDOPACOM, and the recent fuel leaks underscore the need for a reassessment of how the military's energy supplies are dispersed there.

Waltz told CQ Roll Call in a statement that "a significant change to our bulk fuels laydown and overall management system in INDOPACOM needs to occur."

The Pacific Fleet has probed for the cause of the latest leak. The results of that investigation have not yet been made public.

At last month’s readiness panel hearing, senior admirals suggested that the cause was human error — but they did not specify what kind. 

Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green told Hawaii News Now in December that he was reliably informed of the November leak’s cause: a cart had struck an underground fuel pipe that, it turned out, contained oil left over from an earlier 2021 spill. 

The Red Hill tanks have leaked fuel into the ground or the groundwater several times in recent years. In 2014, 27,000 gallons of fuel were accidentally spilled at Red Hill, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said at the January hearing.

The Navy spent “hundreds of millions of dollars” to upgrade the tanks, he said, and issued assurances that Oahu’s water was safe. But, he said, “that was not the case.”