Latest Red Hill Spill Complicates Contested Case on Operating Permit

posted in: June 2021 | 0

At the May 20 Zoom meeting of the state’s fuel tank advisory committee, Hawaiʻi Sierra Club attorney David Kimo Frankel cracked up laughing at what Capt. Gordie Meyer, commanding officer of NAVFAC Hawaiʻi and regional engineer, told Asami Kobayashi, legislative office manager for state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim.

Kobayashi had asked Meyer how many gallons of fuel were released during a May 6 spill at the Navy’s Red Hill fuel tank facility before the loss was detected. It had been reported that around 1,000 gallons of fuel had leaked into the lower access tunnel beneath the tanks, which hold about 180 million gallons of jet fuel.

  “We were told by the Navy they installed safeguards,” Kobayashi said, referring to measures implemented in recent years to prevent a repeat of what happened in January 2014, when 27,000 gallons of fuel leaked from faulty patch weld in Tank 5 and facility personnel chose to silence the fuel release alarm that went off, rather than immediately respond to it.

“When the event occurred, the release was stopped immediately. All fuel was captured,” Meyer answered to Kobayashi’s question. He said this despite Department of Health staff reporting that soil vapor monitoring data suggest that some fuel made its way out of the facility and into the ground.

At Frankel’s outburst of laughter, mediator Peter Adler asked Frankel to mute himself.

“Why don’t you ask him to mute himself? He doesn’t give us any answers!” Frankel replied.

Throughout the meeting, Navy representatives stymied efforts by Frankel, Honolulu Board of Water Supply manager Ernie Lau, and others to learn exactly what had happened.  

In response to Lau’s question about when and how the Navy notified the Health Department about the spill, Meyer would only say that notification happened “rapidly, very quickly.” It took the department’s Joanna Seto to explain that the Navy called to report the spill twelve hours after it happened.

When Lau tried to probe why the call came so late, given the department’s 24-hour reporting hotline, committee member and Navy official Brian Bennett cautioned, “We probably need to be careful with this line of questions. … [It] now becomes part of the record associated with the reopening of the contested case hearing. … Ernie is a litigant in this.”

Out of concern for Oʻahu’s main drinking water aquifer, which lies just 100 feet below the tanks, the Sierra Club and the Board of Water Supply have contested the Navy’s 2019 application for a Department of Health permit to continue operating the Red Hill facility for at least the next five years.

A contested case on the Navy’s application is ongoing. Although the week-long case hearings concluded in early February, hearing officer Lou Chang ordered that information on this most recent spill be added to the record. That information, including correspondence, vapor monitoring data, and other documentation, was due to be submitted by the parties on May 27. The DOH did not make any of it available to Environment Hawaiʻi by press time.

At the May 20 meeting, Bennett assured participants, “In due course, the information will become available,” adding that the DOH is also investigating the incident.

This seemed to assuage no one.

Frankel still pressed Meyer on whether or not the leak had anything to do with the small nozzles at the base of each tank that connect to the pipes down to Pearl Harbor. A 2018 Quantitative Risk and Vulnerability Assessment of the tank system prepared for the Navy by ABS Consulting had identified the nozzles as the most likely source of a fuel leak. An administrative order on consent between the Navy, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Health calls for the decommissioning of those nozzles, which are too small to properly internally inspect, coat or repair.

Meyer would only admit that the leak occurred at a pipe coupling near tanks 18 and 20, but would not say anything more, citing the Navy’s ongoing investigation.

In this way, Meyer deflected Frankel’s follow-up questions about whether any of the fuel had flowed near or above any of the tunnel’s well lids, and whether the Navy detected the leak visually or with monitoring software. The same went for Lau’s questions about how fast the Navy was able to stop the leak and whether parts of the pipeline are controlled remotely.

Slow Progress

If it turns out that the May leak was due to an issue with the kind of nozzles that are to be decommissioned, it would underscore a point Frankel and attorneys for the BWS made repeatedly during the contested case hearing – namely, that the Navy’s planned inspections and upgrades are occurring at a snail’s pace.

It seems incredible to imagine that there aren’t going to be things that aren’t fixed.


“It seems incredible to imagine that there aren’t going to be things that aren’t fixed. The risk is way too high. It’s just not a reliable system,” BWS attorney Ella Foley Gannon said during the opening day of the hearing.

That day, Navy Commander Blake Whittle, regional fuels center officer at Naval Supply Systems Command Fleet Logistics Pearl Harbor from 2017 to June 2020, said that the pipes below the tanks, and not the tanks themselves, are the most likely site of a catastrophic release of fuel.

With regard to the nozzles, Pearl Harbor fuels deputy director John Floyd testified that only a single nozzle has been decommissioned to date, the one in Tank 5. As for the dozen-plus tanks with fuel currently in them that also have the small nozzles, he said that those will be decommissioned as each tank goes through the “clean, inspect, repair” process, over the next decade.

So the risk remains for those tanks in the meantime? Frankel asked Floyd.

“Yes. We cannot take them out of service until we complete their maintenance cycle,” Floyd replied. He added that because the nozzles are an extension of the tank, they are included in the facility’s semi-annual tank tightness testing, which is aimed at detecting tank leaks greater than 0.5 gallons per hour. And so far, all of the tanks tested have passed, according to that standard.

Frankel noted that the operating permit the Navy has applied for is only good for five years. If the permit is granted and the Navy requests another in 2026, “I’m going to want to know how many of these nozzles have been replaced,” Frankel said.

Floyd said that four tanks are currently undergoing the clean, inspect, repair process and that at least six tank nozzles should be decommissioned during the permit period.

So the vast majority of the tanks will still have these small nozzles that pose a risk?


“So the vast majority of the tanks will still have these small nozzles that pose a risk?” Frankel asked.

“Yes,” Floyd replied.

Chronic Release

While the May 6 release of possibly less than 1,000 gallons grabbed headlines, the fact that the facility might be leaking thousands of gallons of fuel a year through tiny holes in the quarter-inch-think steel tank liners is also a major concern of the Sierra Club and BWS. “Coupons” cut from the tanks at Red Hill confirm that despite its concrete casing, the exterior of the sheet metal liner corrodes. 

The same ABS report that identified the nozzles as high risk points also estimated how much fuel could be released through chronic losses, should corrosion create holes in the tanks.

“Have you looked at the ABS report that estimates that over 5,000 gallons of fuel are expected to leak every single year through chronic conditions?” Frankel asked Floyd.

“I’m not sure it said that. If there is a release below the minimum detectable threshold, of .499 gallons per hour, I think, if the tank was releasing, it would release up to 4,300 gallons I believe the math comes out to,” Floyd replied.

Chris Caputi, an engineer with Michael Baker International, which helps oversee Red Hill’s tank tightness testing process, testified that while the method used by its contractor is aimed at detecting leaks as small as 0.5 gallons per hour, in practice, it can detect leaks as small as 0.36 gallons per hour. 

While no leaks have yet been found under this process, Frankel pointed out that even Michael Baker engineers believe a groundwater threat exists.

Frankel read from a 2008 report by the company on the Red Hill facility that Caputi helped write. It stated, “One thing has remained constant since these tanks were commissioned in 1940, and that is the technology to detect leaks in the tanks still lags behind the required level of measurement needed to protect the groundwater aquifer system.”

“Did I read that correctly?” Frankel asked Caputi.

“That’s what it says,” Caputi replied.

Secondary Containment

To prevent fuel from reaching the environment through either a catastrophic or chronic release, the Sierra Club wants the Navy to stop using the underground tanks altogether and transition its fuel to above-ground tanks, while the BWS would be satisfied with the installation of a secondary containment system within the existing tanks.

Thick concrete and gunnite walls surround the tanks. Below them is a concrete plug 20 feet thick, according to Floyd. But concrete is porous and also cracks.

“Concrete … cannot possibility do the job that the Navy says it does,” BWS attorney Gannon said during the hearing. She also noted that under the Department of Health’s administrative rules regarding fuel storage tanks, a concrete encasement did not seem to qualify as the kind of corrosion protection required.

At Tank 5, there is a large stain on a wall where fuel, presumably from the 2014 spill, had penetrated. Navy witnesses estimated that the fuel traveled through at least eight or nine feet of concrete to make that stain.

Commander Whittle testified that he never saw any evidence of cracking or spalling in the concrete at Red Hill, but admitted that only a very small fraction of what’s there has been inspected.

Are you aware of any tightness test of the lower access tunnel?


Given concrete’s porosity, BWS attorney David Brown seemed to question the Navy’s plans, mentioned earlier in the hearing, that the lower access tunnel beneath the tanks could hold a catastrophic release of fuel. “Are you aware of any tightness test of the lower access tunnel?” Brown asked Floyd.

No, Floyd replied, but added that an oil pressure door the Navy has installed within the tunnel was designed to hold the contents of one full tank.

To avoid any leaks due to tank corrosion, the Navy has committed to installing some kind of secondary containment system within the tanks or shutting down the facility by 2045. It’s also entered into an agreement with Gaz Transport and Technigaz (GTT) to have the company conduct a feasibility study to determine whether its stainless steel membrane technology developed for liquefied natural gas containers and ships would work at Red Hill.

The Navy’s Frank Kern, whose job it is to manage the integrity of the tanks at Red Hill, testified that he was not aware of whether GTT’s steel membranes have been used to contain petroleum and that the Navy hoped to have the study results this month.

At the May 20 hearing, Meyer added that the GTT technology could potentially be installed in a single tank in the next few years, and in the remaining tanks between 2025 and 2045.

Meyer also noted the Navy’s partnership with the University of Hawaiʻi College of Engineering. The college has received a $4 million grant for five initiatives to better understand and mitigate corrosion at Red Hill: 1) corrosion inspection and repair protocols, 2) advanced electron miscroscopy for corrosion products and assessment of remediation approaches, 3) concrete tank degradation inspection and retrofit, 4) hybrid multifunctional smart and adaptive nanocoating, and 5) friction surfacing coating and crack fill.


Whether or not the Navy did, indeed, capture all of the fuel that leaked last month remains to be seen, although the soil vapor monitoring suggests that some of it escaped the tunnel somehow. If some of it did escape, it’s questionable whether anything will be done to recover it.

The 27,000 gallons of fuel that leaked in 2014 were never recovered, in part because the EPA and DOH felt that drilling holes into the basalt to look for the fuel to try to recover it might do more harm than good.

Although Meyer argued that none of the fuel from that release had been detected in drinking water, or at least detected at a level that threatened human safety, Charley Ice, retired from the state Commission on Water Resource Management’s geology-hydrology section, countered, “It’s actually in the aquifer right now. It’s in the top of the aquifer right now.”

Lau said there was some debate over what monitoring data suggest about the threat to the drinking water supply. But in any case, “where all that fuel went, that’s a question we don’t know,” he said.

When asked by meeting participant Melodie Aduja whether the Navy was doing anything to prevent further contamination as a result of the 2014 fuel leak, Meyer noted that natural attenuation is occurring right now. 

For any future catastrophic releases, he said there has been significant discussion on building a water treatment plant.

Water Commission staffer Ryan Imata pressed Meyer for more details on the Navy’s mitigation plans.

“Does the Navy have enough of an understanding of groundwater flow to have a plan to do remediation in case there’s a big spill? Presumably, I assume you would drill a well, treat the water, and dump it back in,” Imata said.

Meyer said more information would be included in a supplemental release detection document.

Imata continued, “Drilling a well and having a treatment facility is going to be kind of a long process to construct.” He asked whether the Navy had a strategic plan for drilling remediation wells, since it doesn’t know where the next large fuel release will come from.

The Water Commission is in charge of approving all well drilling permits. And, Imata said, “We can’t give a permit for a well tomorrow. We have to review to ensure it doesn’t pose any risks in itself.”

We obviously want to protect the water.


“We obviously want to protect the water,” Meyer said, adding that there is a lot of discussion on groundwater flow in the area and different opinions about it. “Navy studies show there could be mitigation. … When we agree on a plan, the Navy is ready to move forward,” he said.

To Meyer’s claim that natural attenuation was mitigating the effects of the 2014 fuel release, Ice said that even though the fuel starts to break down once it enters the soil and rock, the constituents that result “are scary for public health. Our concern is people are drinking those constituents right now.”

The DOH’s Joanna Seto agreed that was a concern and said her department was requiring the Navy to monitor and sample for those constituents. “We are monitoring that closely. We want to ensure we are providing safe drinking water to the community,” she said.

During the contested case hearing, the Navy’s counsel, Karrin Minnot, stressed that monitoring shows that the water in the aquifer beneath Red Hill is safe to drink and no petroleum constituents have been detected.

BWS program administrator Erwin Kawata admitted that was largely true, but said the agency’s worry is about the possibility of detecting something in the future. “It remains an ever-present concern due to the proximity to the fuel facility,” he said.

“The Navy has identified several layers of protection. … Use of the Navy water source, Red Hill shaft, a pump-and-treat collection type well. All those processes are testing for something outside the tank after it’s released. As of right now we have heard all of these approaches, the pump and treat. I’m not aware of any type of design or pilot to demonstrate its effectiveness,” he continued.

When Frankel asked whether the Navy could treat fuel-contaminated water next week, Kawata replied, “To our knowledge, the treatment facility doesn’t exist.”

Although it’s not meant for drinking, Frankel asked if groundwater from monitoring well Number 2 beneath the Red Hill tanks was safe to drink.

“No,” Kawata replied, adding later that the risk to the drinking water supply below was substantial. “We have an extremely large amount of fuel … 180 million gallons, 100 feet above the groundwater aquifer, information showing past leaks, studies showing high probabilities of acute and sudden releases into the future …”

It could be months before hearing officer Chang issues his recommended decision in the case. According to Frankel, as of late May, no one had asked about cross examination with regard to the new information submitted about the May spill. Parties were set to submit their post-hearing briefs and proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law by June 14.

— Teresa Dawson

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