Protestors want the Navy to upgrade its Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, where leaking tanks have contaminated the groundwater. - Photos: Courtesy of the Sierra Club of Hawai‘i

In January 2014, a leak in one of the underground storage tanks at the Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility spilled an estimated 27,000 gallons of fuel. Groundwater monitoring detected a spike in levels of hydrocarbons in groundwater. In fact, the carcinogen benzene has been detected. It is undisputed that the leaks from the Navy’s tanks have contaminated our groundwater. The administrator of the water quality division of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply concludes that the amount of contamination “shows levels that pose an unacceptable threat to human health and the environment.”

If our enemies poisoned our drinking water, we would all be up in arms. But the Navy has refused to take prompt and substantive steps to upgrade its tanks. The Navy’s sluggish response contrasts with its actions on the continent. In Washington, the Naval Base Kitsap’s Manchester Fuel Depot is in the process of replacing its underground fuel storage tanks with state-of-the-art, above-ground steel tanks. According to Manchester’s Regional Fuels Manager Glenn Schmitt, “Underground storage tanks have inherent environmental risks and so we’re trying to avoid those risks by bringing the tanks above ground.” The Navy’s refusal to take similar steps here is consistent with the military’s disdain for Hawai‘i’s environment. The military has left unexploded ordinance scattered at Pōhakuloa, Mākua, Waikāne and Kaho‘olawe.

Photo: Protester holding a sign that reads "Clean up red hill"
Sign wavers urge the Navy to upgrade its leaky fuel tanks. Photos: Courtesy of the Sierra Club of Hawai‘i

Fortunately, federal law allows the state to force the Navy to upgrade its tanks. Unfortunately, the Health Department has been afraid of the Navy. After leaving the Navy’s tanks virtually unregulated for decades, the Health Department is now suggesting that in 20 years the Navy should upgrade its tanks to include secondary containment that would prevent fuel from reaching our water supply. Twenty years is far too long to wait. The tanks should be upgraded now, or replaced with state-of-the-art tanks above ground.

The Red Hill fuel tanks store more than 100 million gallons of petroleum 100 feet above the aquifer. Over the past 75 years, the Red Hill fuel tanks have leaked more than 200,000 gallons. The tanks were not meant to last forever and should have never been built directly above a primary source of drinking water. They are a threat to public health. Our drinking water should not continue to be put at risk.

You have the opportunity to let the Health Department know that two decades is too long to wait for the Navy’s tanks to be upgraded to secondary containment. You can email and and ask them to enact rules that require the Navy’s antiquated, leaky underground storage tanks be upgraded immediately with secondary containment – or be removed.

Our water is a public trust resource that needs to be protected. Ka Wai Ola.

David Kimo Frankel is an attorney representing the Sierra Club.