Navy says fuel from Red Hill pipeline likely seeped into the ground after human error

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A burst pipeline at the Navy’s underground fuel facility at Red Hill spilled hundreds of gallons of jet fuel more than originally reported in May, and there is evidence that fuel has leaked into the soil, according to investigation reports published by the US Navy Tuesday.

The Navy assigns primary responsibility to a civilian operator who allegedly failed to follow pipeline valve protocol and faced “appropriate action,” according to Captain Bert Hornyak. He declined to specify what this action was.

The Red Hill underground fuel facility consists of massive tanks and a pipeline system that transports fuel to Pearl Harbor. Courtesy of the US Navy

The day after the May 6 spill, Navy officials estimated the release to be around 1,000 gallons and Captain Gordie Meyer, commanding officer of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command, said there was “no indication that the fuel has been released into the environment. ”

Incident investigators at Austin Brockenbrough & Associates, a continental engineering firm hired by the Navy, concluded otherwise, according to reports.

They estimate that 1,618 gallons of fuel were actually dumped into the facility’s lower access tunnel and that the Navy failed to capture 38 gallons. Soil vapor monitoring wells showed high readings of volatile organic compounds, an ingredient in fuel, after the incident.

Meyer said the Navy made the best possible assessment within hours of the incident, but officials learned more later.

Captain (N) James "Gordie" Meyer said earlier this year that there was no indication that fuel from the Red Hill spill had reached the environment.  Further investigation showed this to be the case.
Captain James “Gordie” Meyer said earlier this year that there was no indication that fuel from the Red Hill spill had reached the environment. Further investigation showed this to be the case. US Navy Image

“At the time, we thought we had it all captured,” Meyer said in an interview Tuesday.

Hornyak said some of this missing fuel may have evaporated or soaked in the concrete at the facility.

There was no increase in fuel detected in the groundwater monitoring wells near the spill, according to one of the reports. The Red Hill Fuel Facility sits 100 feet above a major aquifer that serves hundreds of thousands of residents from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai.

The investigation found several other contributing factors to the spill, including an alarm system that did not sound, but the report says no other factor was as important as human error.

“This release was not due to aging infrastructure, corrosion or the condition of the equipment,” Meyer said.

Meyer said he cannot recall a similar incident over the past several decades.

Wayne Tanaka, executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, said the spill occurred just months after the Navy took over his organization, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply and the state Department of Health during from a disputed case hearing that he could safely operate Red Hill.

At least 73 fuel spill incidents have been documented at the Red Hill facility, according to the water supply board. This includes a leak of approximately 27,000 gallons from a tank in 2014.

Tanaka compared the Navy to a repeat offender drunk driver.

“How many times does someone have to drink and drive and crash their car into something before they take their license away?”? ”said Tanaka, whose organization is advocating for the closure of Red Hill.“ At some point, someone is going to get hurt. ”

Navy reports recommend corrective action, including requiring employees to follow operation orders and undergo enhanced training, among other steps.

“What’s important to note here is that while we never want to spill fuel, the Navy has the infrastructure in place to respond quickly and effectively,” Hornyak said. the commanding officer of Naval Supply Systems Command Fleet Logistics Center Pearl Harbor.

“Since publication, we have taken corrective action to improve safety in all aspects of Red Hill operations. ”

The Navy said it has shared copies of its reports with regulators.

“This open and transparent relationship with regulators is essential,” Hornyak said.

Meanwhile, the Navy faces appeals from state lawmakers and Senator Mazie Hirono to explain an apparent lack of transparency on a separate fuel release: a pipeline leak to Pearl Harbor that began in March 2020.

The Navy had enough evidence in January this year to conclude that the leak in the port was from a pipeline connected to the Red Hill facility, according to the Department of Health.

But officials waited until May to share this evidence with the DOH, fearing that an active leak might reflect poorly on the Navy in its fight for a DOH permit, according to emails obtained by Civil Beat.

Civil Beat has repeatedly asked the Navy to explain how “political considerations” played into the timing of its disclosure to the DOH.

Officials again declined to comment on Tuesday, citing the ongoing disputed case over his permit application.

The authorization process is in progress but has been recently delayed as the state investigates allegations that the Navy has not disclosed the full extent of its fuel pipeline system and its “corrosion history.” The Navy declined to comment on the allegations, but officials said the military has been transparent with regulators.

Ultimately, DOH director Libby Char will decide whether to issue the Navy permit for its underground fuel storage system.

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