Hawaii orders Navy to shut down WWII-era leaking fuel tanks

Thousands of military families in Hawaii were sent fleeing from their homes after jet fuel from an aging storage tank tainted their water supply. Now the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wants to gauge the potential health impact on the state’s civilian population as well.

On Wednesday, investigators with CDC will begin surveying residents living off-base whose water supply was potentially contaminated as a result of a spill in November that was determined to have come from the World War II-era fuel tank.

“Contamination of the Navy‘s water system has reached far beyond the military community,” said Dr. Diana Felton, a toxicologist with Hawaii’s Department of Health. “It is vital that we document and track how this incident affected all Hawaii residents.”

A survey will help state officials better understand the impact of the contamination and determine what steps are needed to protect the health of civilians who were exposed, she said.

On Monday, Hawaii state officials said the Navy must drain the Red Hill Bulk Storage Facility, which supplies fuel for military ships and aircraft that operate in the Pacific. The decision upholds an earlier emergency order to suspend operations there.

The decision “affirms DOH’s actions to safeguard the drinking water that we share as a community,” Kathleen Ho, Hawaii’s deputy director of environmental health, said in a statement. “We call upon the Navy to act without further delay to address the imminent peril this facility poses to the people and environment of Hawaii.”

On Tuesday, Navy officials in Washington said they were reviewing the order but had no further comment.

In late November, Pearl Harbor residents began to complain about a gas or fuel odor coming from their drinking water. The Navy said about 14,000 gallons of jet fuel had spilled at the Red Hill storage facility, with some of it getting into the water distribution system.

The Navy says it will flush the entire water system, from the source to each individual faucet, and perform a series of tests in every neighborhood to certify it meets safe drinking water standards. But recent heavy rainstorms in Hawaii have caused some delays.

“We are closely watching the amount of water going into the storm drains. There is a possibility, if we get a lot of rain, we may need to slow down some of our flushing operations so that we don’t overburden the drains,” Capt. Darren Guenther, Navy Region Hawaii’s chief of staff, said in a statement.

The fuel storage facility doesn’t provide the necessary environmental protection to rapidly identify and repair fuel leaks. It also lacks infrastructure and procedures to rapidly identify and contain subterranean fuel spills and ensure safe drinking water is continuously available to the residents, state health officials said .

According to the order, in addition to immediately suspending operations at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Tanks, the Navy must contract with an independent third party — approved by Hawaii’s Department of Health — to assess the plan to safely remove the fuel and correct any design flaws in the system.

“Upon the department’s approval, the Navy must perform work and implement corrective actions as expeditiously as possible,” the order states.

The Navy has 30 days to appeal the final closure order to Hawaii’s circuit court. But it will remain in effect unless the decision is stayed by a court, state health department officials said.

Hawaii’s branch of the Sierra Club, which has signed onto the case, backed the decision by the state to order the shutting down of the Red Hill fuel storage facility.

“This is a strong and much-needed shift in action that should have happened years ago,” the environmental group said in a statement. “We wish it didn’t take families and pets being poisoned to get Hawaii’s leaders finally on board.”



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