Hawaii hearing over tainted Navy water ends without a ruling

Ceremonial Guardsmen of the Base Honor Guard fold the American flag during a practice exercise at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., Aug. 25, 2020.


HONOLULU — A hearings officer expects to issue a recommendation early next week on whether the Navy has to comply with Hawaii’s order to empty fuel from a massive storage tank facility blamed for contaminating Pearl Harbor drinking water.

The Navy is contesting an order by the state Department of Health to suspend the facility’s operations and empty the underground tanks after tests in recent weeks detected petroleum in the Navy’s tap water system.

Hearings officer David Day listened to hours of testimony and arguments into Monday night as the Navy tried to convince him that the emergency order isn’t necessary while the state, along with Sierra Club of Hawaii and Honolulu’s water utility, argued the tanks pose an imminent peril.

Some families in military housing said the water caused ailments such as vomiting and rashes.

The Red Hill storage facility houses 20 giant fuel tanks that were built near Pearl Harbor in the early 1940s. It supplies fuel to all branches of the military in Hawaii and has been the site of a series of leaks in recent years. The tanks sit 100 feet (30 meters) above an aquifer that normally supplies one-quarter of urban Honolulu’s water.

The Navy said officials believe a spill of jet fuel on Nov. 20 contaminated the tap water. The spill occurred inside an access tunnel containing fire suppression and service lines at the fuel storage facility. Officials said they don’t believe a leak from the tanks themselves tainted the water.

Craig Jensen, an attorney representing the Navy, said in his closing statement Tuesday that the Navy already suspended operations until an investigation is complete.

“Forever suspension is not appropriate,” he said, adding that the Navy is analyzing whether it’s necessary to de-fuel the tanks.

He apologized to the people of Oahu for the contamination.

He said the Navy has taken steps to mitigate the problem. “No one is at actual risk of harm today, and there is no justification for any provision of this order,” Jensen said.

Earthjustice attorney David Henkin said this is a power struggle between the Navy and the Health Department. Henkin said his client, the Sierra Club, intervened in the case because they’re concerned Hawaii won’t “stick to its guns” in implementing the order.

The Navy wants to be the one to decide on de-fueling the tanks, but if the Health Department requires it, the Navy will “fight it to the death,” Henkin said.



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Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.