PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (AP) — A Navy investigation released Thursday found that last year, through shoddy management and human error, fuel leaked into Pearl Harbor’s tap water, poisoning thousands of people and forcing military families to evacuate their homes for hotels .
The investigation is the first detailed report of how jet fuel leaked from the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, a huge military-operated WWII-era fuel storage facility in the hills above Pearl Harbor, into a well that houses homes and offices supplied with water in and around the sprawling base. About 6,000 people suffered from nausea, headaches, skin rashes and other symptoms.
In April, after months of resistance, the military agreed to an order from the state of Hawaii to drain the tanks and shut down the Red Hill facility. A separate report the Department of Defense submitted to the state Health Department on Thursday said December 2024 was the earliest the tanks could be safely defuelled.
The investigation report listed a cascading series of errors from May 6, 2021, when an operator error caused a pipe to rupture and 21,000 gallons (80,000 liters) of fuel to spill when fuel was transferred between tanks. Most of this fuel was spilled into a fire main and stayed there for six months, causing the line to sag. A car hit this sagging line on November 20, releasing 20,000 gallons (75,700 liters) of fuel.
The area where the car hit the line was not supposed to have any fuel, and so officers who responded to the spill did not have the proper equipment to contain the liquid.
“The team incorrectly assumes all fuel is gone,” Adm said. Sam Paparo, the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, told reporters at a news conference. Approximately 5,000 gallons (19,000 liters) were not recovered.
“Meanwhile, over the course of eight days, that fuel enters this French drain that’s under the concrete and slowly and quietly seeps into the well at Red Hill. And that fuel from the Red Hill well is then pumped into the Navy system,” Paparo said.
Red Hill officials thought only 1,618 gallons (6,125 liters) had spilled in the May spill and they recovered all but 38 gallons (144 liters). They noticed that one of the tanks was just under 20,000 gallons (75,700 liters), but believed it had flowed through the pipes and failed to realize that it had flowed into the fire main. They did not report the discrepancy to management.
After the November oil spill that left people sick, the military moved about 4,000 mostly military families to hotels for months while they waited for their water to be safe again.
The spill contaminated the Navy’s water system. Fuel did not enter the Honolulu municipal water supply. But concerns that the oil could migrate through the aquifer and into the city’s wells prompted the Honolulu Board of Water Supply in December to close a key well that serves about 400,000 people. The agency has asked residents to conserve water because of this and unusually dry weather.
The report said that officials defaulted to assuming the best about what was happening when the spills occurred, rather than assuming the worst, and this helped them overlook the seriousness of the situation.
Paparo said the Navy is trying to get away from it. He called it an ongoing process of “getting right with ourselves” and “being honest about our shortcomings.”
He recommended that the Navy review the operations of 48 defense fuel storage facilities worldwide.
“We cannot assume that Red Hill is an outlier and similar issues may exist elsewhere,” Paparo wrote in the report.
The vice chief of naval operations has tasked the chief of the US Fleet Forces Command, a four-star admiral, with establishing disciplinary measures for those in uniform. Recommendations on civilian employees are sent to their supervisors, Paparo said.
The report said the investigation found that poor training and supervision, ineffective leadership and a lack of personal responsibility for operational safety also contributed to the incident.
“The lack of critical thinking, intellectual rigor and self-assessment by key executives at crucial moments is an example of a culture of complacency and demonstrates a lack of professionalism necessitated by the serious nature of the fuel operation,” the report said.
Specifically, the investigation highlighted a February 2021 decision by the commanding officer of the Pearl Harbor Fleet Logistics Center to remove uniformed military oversight from day-to-day operations at Red Hill. According to the report, this has significantly increased the risks of fuel handling.
It also found that key leaders at the November 2021 spill site failed to demonstrate a sense of urgency, critical thinking, vigorous support, and timely and effective communication that “the seriousness of the situation” requires.
U.S. Representative Kaiali’i Kahele said the Navy has repeatedly said Red Hill is an important part of the U.S. national defense but went without proper oversight for decades. He said this shows a lack of leadership, investment and gross negligence.
“The Navy report states that the fuel leaks at Red Hill in May and November 2021 were preventable. This is shocking and deeply concerning,” Kahele, a Democrat from Hawaii, said in a statement.
David Henkin, an Earthjustice attorney who has filed legal challenges against the facility, said the Navy has failed to learn from its mistakes.
“Instead of acting quickly to remove the more than 100 million gallons of toxic fuel that remain above Oahu’s only aquifer, the Navy is proposing to take another two and a half years — until the end of 2024 — to defuel the Red Hill tanks.” . he said. “This is totally unacceptable.”