State health official: Red Hill leaks may total 1.2 million gallons

By Andrew Pereira
Published On: Mar 07 2014 07:24:48 PM HST
Updated On: Mar 08 2014 10:32:52 AM HST

Navy officials confirm that the supply of drinking water near Red Hill is safe but admit that current systems of measuring fuel were not designed with leak detection in mind.

HONOLULU -

The most recent fuel spill at the Red Hill underground fuel storage facility took a backseat Friday when Deputy Health Director Gary Gill announced to a joint briefing of House and Senate lawmakers that the historical impact of past spills may be greater than initially thought.

Click here to watch Andrew Pereira's story.

"In 1998, in a study presented to the Department of Health, (the Navy) estimated that cumulatively up until that point, as much as 1.2 million gallons of fuel from this facility may have leaked."

The wide-ranging briefing featured a presentation by Navy commanders with direct oversight of the fuel storage facility, which completed construction in 1943 and features 20 tanks standing 250 feet tall, each capable of holding 12.5 million gallons of fuel.

Capt. Mike Williamson, commanding officer of Naval Facilities Engineering Command, assured lawmakers that the supply of drinking water nearby is safe.

"We understand your concerns with the recent report of the potential release at Red Hill, and just want to let you know we drink the water too," said Williamson.

The Navy, the Department of Health and the Board of Water Supply have been conducting regular testing of five groundwater monitoring wells near the Red Hill facility, and so far only a trace amounts of chemicals related to the release of petroleum products have been found. Last month, DOH also announced that very low levels of lead and other chemicals were detected in the Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam water system, but it is not considered a health threat.

However, Board of Water Supply Manger and Chief Engineer Ernest Lau highlighted the need for due diligence to ensure 10 percent of Oahu's daily drinking water supply does not become contaminated. The Halawa Shaft, Moanalua Wells, Aiea Wells, Aiea Gulch Well and Halawa Well are all located near the Red Hill facility.

"The groundwater resources in this area are basically irreplaceable. Once lost to massive contamination, you will never be able to recover it," said Lau. "It is of utmost importance that we prevent the contamination of the drinking water source, even if it requires a retrofit of these tanks."

The Navy says the most recent 27,000 gallon leak at Red Hill was detected Jan. 13 after a 1/16 of an inch drop in jet fuel inside tank No. 5. The tank had been offline for the past four years for regular maintenance before being refilled in December after repairs by Willbros Engineers.

Lt. Cmdr. Angela Watson of the Naval Supply Systems Command, which provides logistics support to the Pacific Fleet, said at a fuel stain was spotted on the wall of the concrete barrier that encases the metal cylinder of tank No. 5.

"I went up to Red Hill, I put eyes on that spot myself, and did deem it to be a concerning substance (and) that there was likely some product coming from that tank," said Watson.

As KITV4 reported earlier this week, sources with close knowledge of the Red Hill facility claim the Navy allowed a more holistic approach to fuel leak detection to fall to the wayside.

One of those sources provided a February, 2002 email to KITV4 that was sent to a commander in charge of overseeing fuel storage at Red Hill. In the email the source questions the actions of decision-makers for placing military bureaucracy ahead of a comprehensive system for leak detection.

"I am personally so disenchanted with the lack of technical professionalism, bias, non-objective analysis, nonaccountability of actions, (and) CYA decisions," wrote the source.

The email went on to say that, "... after 45 years of serving clients I do not know what my conduct would be with the Navy Petroleum Office, Defense Energy Supply Center, or Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command government employees," and added, "...they do not make me proud!"

Due to the sensitive nature of the Red Hill facility, which has been deemed a national strategic asset, sources providing information to KITV4 have asked to remain anonymous.

During the Friday hearing, Watson admitted the current automated fuel system in place at the massive tank farm is not designed specifically for leak detection.

"Right now, we don't have per se a leak detection system installed," said Watson. "We have an inventory and accounting control system installed."    

Navy officials say soil vapor monitors underneath the Red Hill tanks are read once a month, and can also be used to determine if petroleum products are escaping.

"So, this can be used as a form of leak detection if there is a spike in the hydrocarbon levels underneath the tanks," said Watson.

The Navy has issued a request for proposals to hire an independent contractor to determine how petroleum product leaked from Red Hill could migrate to nearby water supplies. The decision to update so-called 'fate and transport' modeling came after consultations by a joint command, which was activated after the January leak at Red Hill.

"Given the importance of understanding the groundwater movement and the contaminant fate and transport model, efforts are ongoing to award a contract to revise this plan and the associate model," said Aaron Poentis, the environmental program director for Naval Facilities Engineering Command Hawaii.

The Navy expects to get inside tank No. 5 for a visual inspection sometime next month, after invoking a warranty clause with Willbros.

However after the informational briefing, lawmakers shifted their attention to possible mitigation measures that could be required to ensure 14 to 16 million gallons of daily drinking water remains safe.

"It's not just about the 27,000 gallons that leaked on Jan. 13, but it's what's gone on in the past and what we can do as a state to make sure this doesn't happen again," said Sen. Mike Gabbard, who chairs the Energy and Environment Committee.

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