Navy Suspects 'Operator Error' for Hawaii Fuel Spill, Says It Will Comply with Order to Drain Tanks

Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility near Pearl Harbor
A tour group listens to a brief during a visit with Vice Adm. Dixon R. Smith, commander, Navy Installations Command, to the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility near Pearl Harbor, January 24, 2017. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Laurie Dexter)

Navy officials said Tuesday they believe "operator error" was responsible for a November fuel spill that contaminated a well supplying drinking water to military housing at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the second such leak in the past six months attributed to personnel at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.

U.S. Pacific Fleet Deputy Commander Rear Adm. Blake Converse told a House Armed Services subcommittee Tuesday that independent experts are investigating the spill, which leaked a to-be-determined amount of jet fuel into the hills above Honolulu.

The panel is seeking to determine the cause and whether the incident bears any relation to a May 6 spill, which also has been attributed to "operator error."

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"This is a strategic fuel facility for the entire military, not just the Navy, so we need to understand and not treat these as individual, isolated incidents and take minor corrective actions, but treat these as potential systemic issues, get to the root causes and fix those problems," Converse told members of the Readiness Subcommittee.

He told the panel that the Navy was preparing to comply with an emergency order from the state last month to empty the tanks at the facility, one of the largest in the world, capable of holding up to 250 million gallons of fuel. He declined to provide a time frame, noting the investigation into the cause of the spills, facility assessments by third-party experts, plans for removing the fuel and the contracting process will take time.

"We are taking action because that is a lawful order," Converse said.

Converse also told lawmakers that any decision to continue fighting the order would come from the secretary of the Navy or the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and would take into account "the strategic importance of Red Hill and alternatives."

More than 3,500 military families have been affected by the spill, which contaminated the tap water in their homes at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and elsewhere, sending many to area hotels during the Christmas season and forcing others to use only bottled water in their homes.

The well that supplies drinking water to the homes was found to be contaminated with JP-5 jet fuel, the result of a spill earlier in the month from the Red Hill storage facility, which sits above an aquifer that supplies water to more than 93,000 residents of Honolulu.

The facility has been under fire for years, having been the source of a fuel dump of more than 20,000 gallons in January 2014.

The Hawaii Department of Health issued an order in December for the Navy to remove all fuel from the facility. The state’s deputy attorney general upheld the emergency order, and state officials have confirmed that it must be followed.

During the hearing Tuesday, lawmakers expressed concerns over the safety of the facility and the Navy's response to the spill.

Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., said the water contamination could compare to other recent events -- the grounding of the fast attack submarine Connecticut in October, the fire that destroyed the Bonhomme Richard last year, the collisions of the guided missile destroyers Fitzgerald and McCain -- that were indications of broader problems within the Navy.

"If we're talking about this as an operator error, it may reflect back to the same systemic issues we continue to see over and over again within the Navy," Luria said.

Rep. Mike Waltz of Florida, the subcommittee's ranking Republican, said the facility plays a strategic security role, and the House panel plans to hold a classified hearing within the next month to discuss its importance to the Pacific region.

"I am somewhat concerned that any long-term effort to entirely defuel Red Hill will have some significant national security consequences, but I am supportive of initially defueling Red Hill to a level that supports our surge requirements and, additionally, defueling this depot at a future point should be aggressively pursued," he said.

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

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