Hawaii Upholds Order Requiring Navy to Drain Fuel Tanks

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water system flushing restoration process at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam
Construction Electrician 1st Class Nha Le, assigned to Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit 303, and Lance Cpl. Mark DeCristoforo, assigned to 3rd Marine Division, rinse an ice tray during the water system flushing restoration process at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam (JBPHH) housing communities, Dec. 30, 2021. (Omar Rubi/U.S. Navy)

HONOLULU — Hawaii's Department of Health on Monday upheld the governor's order requiring the Navy to drain massive World War II-era fuel tanks after oil leaking from the aging facility contaminated Pearl Harbor's tap water.

Marian Tsuji, the department's deputy director, on Monday said she agreed with the conclusions of an official appointed by the department to review the facts of the case. She said she would adopt the official's proposed findings as final, though would fix a typographical error.

The Navy is reviewing the decision, said Cmdr. Reann Mommsen, a spokesperson for the Navy Office of Information in Washington.

Hawaii law allows parties to appeal such decisions in the court system.

David Henkin, an attorney for Earthjustice, which represented the Sierra Club of Hawaii in the case, urged the Navy not to appeal.

“The threat to Oahu’s irreplaceable drinking water supply is far too dire for lawyers’ games. It is time for the Navy finally to do the right thing and promptly comply with the Department of Health’s order to defuel the Red Hill tanks,” he said in a statement.

The department's hearings officer for the case, Deputy Attorney General David Day, concluded the tanks were a “ticking time bomb” that threaten the water supply on the state's most populous island.

He said they posed “an imminent threat to human health and safety or the environment” and agreed with the governor's order to defuel the tanks.

The Navy objected to Day's findings last week, saying he used an “overbroad” interpretation of the Department of Health’s emergency authority to regulate underground fuel storage tanks. The Navy argued the tanks didn't currently pose an “imminent” threat.

The Navy last month detected petroleum in a well that supplies water to Pearl Harbor area military housing, offices and elementary schools. Navy officials say they believe the well became contaminated by a series of pipeline leaks at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility nearby.

The Navy received about 1,000 complaints from people saying their water smelled like fuel or chemicals or that they suffered from nausea, vomiting and other physical ailments. More than 3,000 military families are living in hotels and other alternative housing while the Navy addresses the contamination.

Honolulu's water utility draws from the same aquifer as the Navy's well, prompting concerns that one of Oahu's most important water sources may have also become tainted by oil. The utility has shut off one its wells that draws on the aquifer so petroleum doesn't taint its own water.

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