WASHINGTON – A U.S. Navy committee tasked with addressing a leak of jet fuel from a WWII-era storage facility that contaminated the water supply at a base in Hawaii will not consider shutting down the site, a Navy official said.
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro established a task force on December 8 comprised of officials from across the government to address the causes of the leak and ensure clean drinking water and safe operations at the bulk fuel storage facility. from Red Hill on Hawaii’s Oahu island near Honolulu, according to a memo seen by The Wall Street Journal.
A Navy official familiar with the task force’s plans said Red Hill was too important a strategic asset to shut down naval operations in the Pacific.
“We are not looking to close anything,” the official said. “We are analyzing what happened in the incident and then we will make informed decisions in the future on how to ensure that we are providing a continuous source of drinking water and keeping people safe.”
Last month, jet fuel stored at Red Hill leaked into the aquifer that supplies drinking water to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and tens of thousands of local Hawaiians. The contamination sickened some residents and displaced more than 3,000 military personnel and their families, who had to move to hotels and other accommodations.
The water contamination was first identified when the Navy said it was investigating the November 20 discovery of 14,000 gallons of fuel-water mixture in a drain pipe near Red Hill. Around the same time, residents complained of the fuel odor from the water.
Several senior Pentagon officials, including Del Toro and Pentagon Undersecretary Kathleen Hicks, visited Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. They met with military families who said the Navy had not been forthright or done enough to protect the water. Some said they have experienced dizziness, nausea, headaches, and other medical ailments from exposure.
The facility, hastily built during World War II, has for years faced oil leaks from its tanks, which hold up to 250 million gallons of jet fuel. There have been two such leaks in the past six months, according to the Navy, and the facility has repeatedly faced fines and other punishments from local health officials.
In May, an operator error caused 1,618 gallons of jet fuel to leak from a pipeline in Red Hill. The Navy is examining whether the May and November incidents are related.
After the November 20 leak, the Hawaii Department of Health found that water samples collected at the Red Hill plant contained 350 times more hydrocarbons from gas and diesel than the maximum level considered safe for drinking water.
The department also challenged the Navy’s claim that the problem had been contained at Red Hill. He said he had found traces of oil in samples taken from the Aliamanu Child Development Center, located at the base, and private residences attached to the Navy’s water system.
Two days later, the Hawaii Department of Health ordered the Navy to suspend operations at the facility, remove fuel, and submit a corrective plan within 30 days. Subsequently, the Navy halted operations.
Some environmental activists, state officials and local residents have called for the plant to be permanently closed.
In the two-page memo, Mr. Del Toro asked representatives from various federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, and local government officials to join the task force and provide monthly updates. Meredith Berger, Acting Undersecretary of the Navy, will lead the group.
The Del Toro memo did not directly address whether Red Hill should remain open. Rather, he said one of the task force’s goals would be to implement “protocols necessary to protect the health and well-being” of those who use water near the facility.
Some critics questioned how the Navy could find a long-term solution without considering closing Red Hill.
“To fix the problem, it will be necessary to shut down Red Hill and drain the fuel for at least several years, if not permanently. The fact that the Navy says it will not shut down Red Hill suggests that they are not necessarily committed to solving the problem, ”said Bryan Clark, principal investigator for the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank.
“Under the Navy’s own plans, the cost of repairing Red Hill would run into the millions of dollars, and that could require money dedicated to fund preparation,” he said.
Write to Nancy A. Youssef at [email protected]
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