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Navy’s scathing investigation of Red Hill fuel spill leads to widespread community distrust

People hold signs in front of the Hawaii state Capitol during a rally calling for the closure of the Navy's Red Hill underground fuel storage facility near Pearl Harbor, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022 in Honolulu. Hawaii's U.S. Reps Ed Case and Kaiali'i Kahele said they have introduced legislation to permanently shut down the facility. Late last year jet fuel leaked into drinking water and showed up in military family homes. Many families became ill or developed rashes after bathing in and drinking the water. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)

The Navy’s own findings in a comprehensive investigation of the Red Hill fuel like have inspired little confidence in its ability to defuel the storage tanks themselves.

Down to the wire and on the June 30 deadline for the military to release its defueling plan, the Defense Department presented a 20-page document to the Hawaii Health Department detailing how it plans to shutter the Red Hill military fuel storage facility. Also on that Thursday, the Hawaii Health Department released the Navy’s comprehensive investigation into what went wrong at the facility. The Navy’s summarization—especially as it relates to the final crisis that led to orders for Red Hill’s shuttering—is damning: “This water contamination resulted from a series of cascading failures, and those failures were preventable. They were due to both individual errors and systemic problems. Although the Navy is proficient at conducting technically complex, high-consequence operations at sea, many of those processes were not applied at Red Hill.”

In page after page of the Navy’s assessment, the failures mount. Past failures, like a prior spill in May, contributed to the fuel leak last November—itself a product of, per the Navy, “the Red Hill rover inadvertently [striking] a fire suppression system retention line drain valve with the passenger cart of a train, cracking the PVC pipe.” Multiple workers were injured responding to the leak, with some receiving minor chemical burns and experiencing skin irritation. The smell of fuel was pungent and the mixture of fuel and water blasting forth from the pipe with such intensity made it difficult to contain—not that the Navy activated a response plan to begin with that day. Even if the Navy had done more than just refer to its response plan, the plan itself failed to account for the Red Hill well the fuel ultimately leaked into on Nov. 20, 2021.

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