This month, the US Navy appealed an order to drain some leaking underground jet fuel tanks on the island of Oahu, home to Honolulu, Pearl Harbor, and a large military presence. The Sierra Club of Hawaii has been pressing the issue for more than 20 years, citing ongoing leaks of jet fuel into the aquifer that provides drinking water for Oahu residents. The Red Hill fuel facility includes 18 active tanks that cumulatively hold approximately 225,000,000 gallons of jet fuel. The problem is that those tanks are sitting about 100 feet above the aquifer that supplies freshwater to more than half a million people. The other problem is that the tanks were built ~80 years ago, a hasty design and construction necessitated by the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
The worst identified leak prior to recent events was a 27,000 gallon leak in 2014. The recent contamination was noted by residents, many of them active US Navy personnel and their families that live right around the facility. Residents reported symptoms including skin rashes, illness, stomach distress, pet illnesses, and more, and for days, the US Navy denied reports that the fuel tanks were leaking. After finally acknowledging the most recent leak, the Navy began remediation efforts, draining 5 million gallons of water from the aquifer per day, and relocated many of its affected service members to hotels.
US taxpayers are footing the bill. The cost of cleanup and relocation efforts is, in the first two months since the leak was confirmed, more than $250 million, according to a report in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
The well most directly affected has been shut down, as have adjacent wells, with the hope of slowing the spread of petroleum to other wells and the greater aquifer that serves almost half a million residents on Oahu, including virtually all of Honolulu, the state’s capital and largest city. All told, this accounts for 20% of the freshwater Honolulu residents get, and has led to increased pressure on other wells, and a virtual certainty of water shortages as the dry months of summer approach, according to the Board of Water Supply.
The Navy, which in a 2019 report identified the risk of leaks up to 30,000 gallons as having a 27.6% probability, indicated it would appeal the Department of Health order to drain the tanks. Kathleen Ho, deputy director of environmental health for the state Health Department, said, “The Navy committed to Congress and in multiple public forums that it would comply with the emergency order.” Ho called the announcement to appeal “yet another breach of trust between the Navy and the people of Hawaii.”
The Sierra Club of Hawaii, Board of Water Supply, state Department of Health, Hawaii’s entire congressional delegation, and the state’s governor have all called for the immediate draining of the tanks.