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Citizens’ group in Hawaii sues Navy for water contamination

Activists call for the Navy to pay for fuel spills that have contaminated thousands of Hawaii resident's water.

 (CN) — An environmental nonprofit in Hawaii sued the U.S. Navy Tuesday over a monthslong water contamination crisis that came to the public’s attention last November.

Reports of water contaminated by the Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility first came in November 2021; months later, the situation has not been entirely resolved. Though the water was declared safe to consume this March, the fight to protect Hawaii’s waters has continued.

The Wai Ola Alliance filed suit in federal court against the Navy for allegedly contaminating Hawaii waters with petroleum discharge.

“The environmental, health, aesthetic, spiritual, economic and recreational interests of Alliance members have been, are being and will continue to be adversely affected by the Navy’s ongoing violations of the Clean Water Act,” the lawsuit reads. 

The group asks for an end to petroleum fuel pollutants caused by aging and deteriorating fuel tanks, particularly at Halawa Stream and Pearl Harbor, which the lawsuit refers to by its Hawaiian name, Pu’uloa. They call for the Navy to pay nearly $60,000 per day, per violation, in damages.

The state government issued an emergency order last December, and another on May 6, demanding the Navy to shut down the facility and defuel. The Navy responded with a lawsuit claiming that the state had no authority to make these demands, but released a statement March 7 announcing that the facility will shut down permanently.

The Wai Ola Alliance represents concerned residents — many of whom are Kanaka Maoli, or of native Hawaiian heritage — who ultimately want to see Hawaii waters free of pollution.

“The Alliance decided to have a seat at the table, to ensure that the closure is conducted safely, without more spills, without more contamination of the aquifer, and to make it happen timely way,” said Daniel Cooper, an attorney for the group.

The Red Hill facility contains 20 underground tanks, each of them 250 feet tall and 100 feet wide, and is capable of storing over 250 million gallons of fuel. A series of pipelines run the petroleum fuel to ships and planes at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The facility sits 100 feet directly above an aquifer that supplies water to a majority of Oahu, where Honolulu sits.

Thousands of residents near Red Hill, many of them military families housed on the Navy’s own water system, have reported headaches, vomiting, rashes and other various symptoms; some were hospitalized by their symptoms. Navy families were relocated to temporary housing to prevent any more exposure to the pollutant. A class-action lawsuit filed in December seeks redress for Hawaiians injured by the pollutants.

Navy officials have not explicitly confirmed the source of the leakage. The Navy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

According to the lawsuit, the Red Hill facility has been the source of over 70 reported leaks since its completion in 1943. But military inspections throughout have consistently declared it safe. The group also claims that fuel had been discharged into Halawa Stream and Pearl Harbor even before November 2021.

After a 2014 incident released up to 74,000 gallons of fuel from the tanks, the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Health made an agreement with the Navy, that asked the military to address the failing infrastructure of the facility. According to the group’s lawyer, the DOH did nothing to enforce this order.

“There is no citizen participation in the defueling and clean up process currently. It’s only DOH. And DOH has not done a great job to date in ensuring Red Hill is managed safely and the aquifer is protected. And it is not particularly transparent,” Cooper said. “The Navy and the DOH promised to do the right thing after the spill, and we got nothing.”

In order to flush the contaminated water from their housing system, a system of filters was set up in late December. The DOH granted a general permit to the Navy to discharge up to 50 million gallons of this treated water into Halawa Stream per day. Cooper argues that this general permit has permissive environmental testing standards that are not appropriate for a cleanup of this magnitude, and the effects of the water on the native wildlife of the area could still be devastating.

The emergency order issued by the Department of Health on May 6 now requires the Navy to come up with a plan to safely defuel by June 30, and a plan for the closure of the Red Hill facility by Nov. 1.

Based on reports submitted by the Navy, their plan would take up to four years to completely drain the tanks.

“Our engineer tells us if there was a war, if it was a mission critical issue, they would defuel those tanks in less than a year,” Cooper said.

However, defueling presents its own potential for contamination, says critics. Assessments by Simpson Gumpertz & Heger (SGH), an engineering firm contracted to examine the facility, have reportedly been negative.

“The SGH walkthroughs documented extensive corrosion, failed coatings, improper repairs, inadequate pipe supports, inappropriate connections and valving and other failures in operation and management of the Facility by the Navy,” the lawsuit claims. “SGH stress modeling found that stresses on existing pipelines at the facility will exceed acceptable levels during defueling at least five locations, with two significantly overstressed by defueling.”

Residents have even been asked by the Honolulu Board of Water Supply to conserve water to make up for the millions of gallons of contaminated water that are no longer safe to use. Various state and environmental organizations continue to monitor the situation to ensure that the island’s main aquifer remains safe in the interim.

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