Navy Decommissions Facility After Fuel in Drinking Water Sickened 6,000 People

The US Navy in Hawaii has resolved to defuel and decommission the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility after fuel leaking into drinking water sickened more than 6,000 people. Investigations by Navy authorities found that Navy officials were to blame for the water poisoning at Pearl Harbor and that some officials will soon be held accountable for the disaster.

According to a Navy inquiry, fuel from the facility seeped into a water well that supplied drinking and home-use water to households around Pearl Harbor. About 4,000 military families were evacuated from their homes and forced to live in hotels when thousands of people suffered nausea, headaches, skin rashes, and other illnesses from the contaminated water well.

Inquiries found that the human and management error started in May 2021 when Navy officers tried to move oil from one tank to the other. The transfer caused massive pressure within the system and two pipes broke under the weight, leading to a fuel spill. Operators thought the spill was about 1,580 gallons of fuel and failed to report it to higher authorities, not knowing it was actually 21,000 gallons.

The thousands of gallons of spill leaked into a tunnel system, where it remained for six months, and by November the weight sagged the holding pipes. And when a cart mistakenly rammed into the sagging pipes, it broke and the fuel gushed through the underground concrete into the nearby water well. Unfortunately, officials that responded to the spill believed the leakage was water mixed with fuel, not knowing that it was actually fueled only.

Within days, people in the area began to complain of environmental pollution and within weeks, thousands of people began to fall sick. Expert tests showed the water being pumped to people’s homes contained petroleum hydrocarbons and vapors, leading to unprecedented health complications for residents of the Pearl Harbor area. Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathleen Ho said the facility must be shut down and the Navy take responsibility.

“Red Hill needs to be shut down as quickly as possible, and we fully expect that the Navy will marshal all possible available resources to defuel and decommission the facility,” Ho said. “However, with the extensive repairs needed and the Navy’s history of spills from unsafe pipelines, our first priority continues to be ensuring that all defueling activities are performed safely for the sake of the people and environment of Hawaii.”

Admiral Samuel Paparo, the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, said the Navy would accept responsibility for the accident, saying some junior and senior officers must be questioned for their poor judgment and failure to act in time.

“The Navy accepts responsibility for what happened,” Paparo said. “The consolidated disposition authority will review the evidence and make an independent determination on accountability consistent with the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The lack of critical thinking, intellectual rigor and self-assessment by key leaders at decisive moments exemplified a culture of complacency and demonstrated a lack of professionalism that is demanded by the high consequence nature of fuel operations.”