The Defense Department Inspector General has put the Navy and the Defense Logistics Agency on notice that it will conduct a sweeping review of management and oversight of the Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, starting this month.

The review was requested by Hawaii’s congressional delegation Dec. 6 following reports of petroleum found in tap water for military housing on Joint Base Pearl Habor-Hickam. But the delegation has made multiple requests for a review of the facility, based on concerns about safety hazards.

On Nov. 28, a number of military families reported they were smelling fuel odors in their tap water. Although there were conflicting reports initially, the Navy confirmed Dec. 3 that petroleum had been found in the water. Many of the more than 3,000 families in 12 different communities on the Navy water system left their homes to move to hotels at the government’s expense. Families in six Navy, four Air Force and two Army housing communities are affected.

Some have stayed in their homes for various reasons, and are being provided potable water, shower facilities, and drop-off laundry service. While the Navy has started flushing the system, the process won’t be finished for the holidays; many families have been planning their holidays around a hotel room. But other worries loom, too, including possible long-term health effects.

Auditors will look at the Navy’s operation, maintenance, safety measures and oversight of the facility and its protection of the environment and drinking water systems in compliance with federal and state regulations and DoD policy, according to the Dec. 20 memo signed by Randolph R. Stone, assistant DoD inspector general for evaluations of space, intelligence, engineering and oversight.

Navy officials have said the contamination likely happened Nov. 20, when 14,000 gallons of jet fuel spilled inside an access tunnel providing fire suppression and service lines for the World War II-era fuel storage facility. The Navy announced Dec. 6 it was suspending operations at the facility. Navy officials have said they believe the contamination is a result of the one-time spill, not from a leak in the aging underground fuel storage tanks.

Meanwhile, Navy officials on Monday began flushing water lines in several neighborhoods, based on a plan outlined in a joint agreement between the Navy, the Hawaii State Department of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency Dec. 17. According to the estimated timeline, the Navy expects to finish flushing and repeated water testing in all the communities by Jan. 24. Officials said it’s estimated to take about two weeks for each community, so families who have left their homes to go to government-provided hotels will be spending their holidays there.

The flushing will continue until testing confirms the drinking water is fit for consumption, as determined by the Hawaii Department of Health. Navy officials said they will continue providing all necessary support to families and communities throughout the flushing process. Some morale, welfare and recreation activities have been set up to provide holiday activities, officials said Monday.

“It’s critical that the military restore safe drinking water immediately. We also need answers,” the Hawaii congressional delegation said in a joint statement, applauding the DoD Inspector General for opening the investigation.

Even before the leak, the Hawaii congressional delegation had made multiple requests for the DoD IG to investigate the facility. On Nov. 3 they called for the DoD IG to investigate whether the Navy properly investigated other recent fuel releases at the facility.

“Recent events have called into question the Navy’s operations of the Red Hill facility and their ability to ensure the safety of water provided to Hawaii’s military families and Oahu residents,” said the congressional delegation. “The IG’s findings will be critical to determining the future of Red Hill,” said Sens. Mazie K. Hirono and Brian Schatz, and Reps. Ed Case and Kaiali’i Kahele.

The DoD IG said the evaluation will include Navy Installations Command, Naval Facilities Command, Naval Supply Systems Command and Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. At the DoD level, the evaluation will include the Offices of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment and the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, and the Defense Logistics Agency.

According to the Navy’s Red Hill facility web page, the storage facility supports U.S. military operations from all branches of service in the Pacific. “Unlike any other fuel facility in the United States, Red Hill can store up to 250 million gallons of fuel,” officials state. There are 20 steel-lined underground storage tanks, encased in concrete.

Concerns have been raised for years by Hawaii officials about the safety of Red Hill’s fuel storage tanks, which are about 100 feet above a key aquifer. In January 2014, the Navy reported a leak of 27,000 gallons of jet fuel from one of the tanks. The Hawaii Board of Water Supply has urged the Navy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Hawaii Department of Health to double line the tanks or relocate them away from that key aquifer, and to clean up the fuel that is already under the tanks to reduce the threat to other wells in the area.

The Red Hill facility is also addressed in the fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill now awaiting the president’s signature. Lawmakers note, “it is the sense of Congress that the Secretary of the Navy and the Defense Logistics Agency should operate and maintain the Red Hill Bulk Storage Facility to the highest standard possible, and require safety inspections to be conducted more frequently. …”

The defense bill requires an inspection of the facility by an independent American Petroleum Institute-certified inspector. The required inspection excludes the fuel tanks at the facility, but the Navy will prepare a life-cycle sustainment plan for the facility, which will consider the current condition and service life of the tanks, pipeline system and support equipment.

The secretary of defense will be required to conduct an assessment of alternative locations for secure bulk fuel storage, including at least three locations outside Hawaii.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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