Concern over dozens of leaks at the Red Hill fuel storage facility in Halawa Heights prompted the Department of Health to write a letter to the U.S. Navy on Oct. 10, 2003 that demanded a leak detection system for each of the 20 tanks buried underground. The letter was written more than a decade before a leak of 27,000 gallons of jet fuel was detected Jan. 13 at tank No. 5.
"We were getting reports from the Navy about their investigations at the Red Hill tanks," said Steven Chang, chief of the Health Department's Solid and Hazardous Waste Branch, who wrote the letter. "So, we had lots of questions to ask about things that they were doing at the site."
Navy Region Hawaii responded to Chang's inquiry nearly nine months later on July 8, 2004. However, the reply was less than what the Department of Health was hoping for.
"Specific with respect to our leak detection, they said that they're currently working on reviewing technologies that could be employed," said Chang. "It was just a single line in their response."
Unbeknownst to the Health Department, the Red Hill tanks were built with a leak release system in place, called the Telltale System, which consisted of a series of pipes that monitored any leaks on the outside wall of the steel tanks. Encased in concrete, the tanks stand 250 feet tall and can each hold 12.5 million gallons of fuel.
"At that point in time, we had no knowledge of anything they were doing and based on the federal regulations, they were deferred from having release detection systems," said Chang. "So if anything, they would be doing something on a voluntary basis."
According to sources familiar with leak detection at Red Hill, the Telltale system was eventually augmented by the AsterNet system in the early 80s, which was upgraded and refined through the 90s. The upgraded AsterNet system used a flotation device, probes and algorithms to more accurately determine how temperature and pressure could impact tank level readings.
But despite the apparent success in detecting leaks, the more holistic AsterNet system was replaced by a Mass Tank Gauging System sometime in the early 2000s. The Mass Tank Gauging System uses indirect readings from probes every 9 feet to determine if there's a leak, and remains in use today.
In 2003, the Department of Health had no way of knowing which system, AsterNet or MTGS, would more accurately portray tank fuel levels at Red Hill to indicate possible leaks.
"We'd have to look at their documentation, justifying one system over the other," said Chang. "One can never know how effective they are until they're actually put in the field and worked on."
In response to KITV4's inquiry about the Department of Health letter, Navy Region Hawaii Public Affairs spokesman Tom Clements issued a statement saying a market survey of the best leak detection systems available was conducted in 2008. Clements said the Navy chose a system used in 2009, 2011 and 2013 to perform biennial tank integrity tests. The system is known as the Automated Fuel Handling Equipment system, or AFHE.
"We continue to improve our system of monitoring and detection and incorporate new technologies whenever possible," Clements said of fuel leak detection at Red Hill.
Meanwhile, the Navy's lag in providing pertinent information to the state about the most recent leak at Red Hill and what was done to monitor the massive tanks in previous years, continues to be a sore spot with lawmakers. Sen. Mike Gabbard, who chairs the Energy and Environment Committee, will lead a joint House and Senate briefing Friday about January's leak from tank No. 5.
"I'm very concerned and that's why at the meeting on Friday I want to bring up these issues and hear directly first hand from the Navy," Gabbard told KITV4.
The January leak and dozens of others dating back to 1947 could threaten the Pearl Harbor aquifer, which supplies drinking water to Oahu.
Last month, the Health Department announced low levels of lead and other chemicals were found in the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system, but the chemicals did not pose a threat to public health.
From 2002 through 2009, the Navy began drilling ground water monitoring wells near the Red Hill complex to exam the effects of petroleum product releases on groundwater.
Chang said one of several computer models given to the Health Department by the Navy showed the nearby aquifer could be impacted in a matter of years.
"One of the early models suggested that a release, if it occurred in the neighborhood of 16,000 gallons of fuel, could result in a migration to the Red Hill source waters in six to eight years," he said.
After the January fuel spill, the Board of Water Supply temporarily shut down five drinking water wells near the Red Hill facility and has increased regular monitoring. A test conducted Feb. 13 turned up negative, with another round of tests scheduled later this month and April. A BWS spokeswoman said quarterly testing of the wells will continue through December, 2015.
"There seems to be more and more revelations about environmental problems that are taking place at the Red Hill fuel facility, and I think the most important issue is public safety, what can we do to prevent any future leaks," said Gabbard.
Friday's information briefing about the latest Red Hill fuel leak will be held at the state Capitol in room 329 at 1 p.m.