Navy Fighting Health Department Order to Drain Fuel Tanks over Tainted Water Concerns

A tunnel inside the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, is shown.
This photo shows a tunnel inside the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Jan. 26, 2018. (U.S. Navy via AP)

The Navy is fighting an order from the state of Hawaii's government to stop using and drain the fuel tanks at its underground bulk storage facility on Hawaii near Honolulu.

The Hawaii Department of Health issued an order to the Navy on Monday to suspend operations at the Red Hill fuel facility, treat contaminated drinking water, and remove fuel from its 20 underground tanks.

But in a letter to Hawaii health officials and others Tuesday, a Navy attorney said the service is contesting the order. He gave no reason why.

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"On Dec. 6, 2021, the Hawaii State Department of Health issued an emergency order ... to the U.S. Department of the Navy. The Commander, Navy Region Hawaii, hereby provides notice of its intent to contest the emergency order," wrote Craig Jensen, the command's associate general counsel.

Navy officials said Monday they stopped transferring fuel at the tank farm on Nov. 27 while investigating petroleum contamination of a well that supplies drinking water to some portions of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and other military housing areas on Oahu.

During a press conference, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said the service had found petroleum in monitoring wells during the past several months but didn't know that there was a problem in a main water supply well until families began complaining of an odor and illnesses beginning Nov. 28.

He added that "there was enough concern" that they took that well offline and shifted to other sources.

The Navy did not announce the results of tests on the water, which confirmed petroleum contamination, until four days later.

Nearly 1,000 military families began complaining Nov. 28 that their tap water smelled like fuel, and some reported developing symptoms of an environmental exposure, including rashes, gastrointestinal complaints and nosebleeds.

The Hawaii Department of Health recommended that affected households stop using the water for everyday chores, bathing and personal hygiene; on Dec. 2, the Navy announced that it obtained positive test results for a petroleum product in the system.

The contaminated Red Hill well is located near the underground fuel tank facility, which stores reserves used to power ships and aircraft.

The facility also sits atop an aquifer that provides water to more than 400,000 residents of Honolulu.

The Navy brought in water to affected residents and later provided hotel rooms and other services to them while it worked to flush the system and ensure that the water is up to Environmental Protection Agency standards -- a process that Rear Adm. Blake Converse, deputy Pacific Fleet commander, said may take 10 days.

Del Toro also pledged to investigate how contaminants got into the well and to fix the problem.

"We're looking at the steps that need to be taken today, the steps that need to be taken in the next few days, the next few weeks and, of course, the longer capital investment," Del Toro said. "I believe we should operate Red Hill as if it was one of our nuclear power submarines or nuclear-powered aircraft carriers."

Navy officials in Hawaii did not respond to a request for an update by publication Wednesday.

The tanks, constructed during World War II, collectively can store 250 million gallons of fuel.

Del Toro said Monday that the Navy was still determining how the petroleum got into the water system and apologized for what he called a "horrible, horrible tragedy."

"Your health and well-being is our top priority, both while we are here on the island and while I am back in Washington, D.C.," he said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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