Navy finds Hawaii fuel leak made worse by leadership failures

Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Luke McCall/U.S. Navy via AP
In this Dec. 23, 2021, photo provided by the U.S. Navy, Rear Adm. John Korka, Commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command (NAVFAC), and Chief of Civil Engineers, leads Navy and civilian water quality recovery experts through the tunnels of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, near Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Service officials’ failure to take charge in the days and months after two major fuel leaks last year at a Navy storage facility in Hawaii led to thousands of residents’ drinking water becoming contaminated, a newly released investigation found.

The response from on-site leadership at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Oahu fell “unacceptably short of the Navy standards for leadership, ownership, and the safeguarding of our communities,” Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William Lescher wrote in an endorsement of the report.  

The investigation centers around the May 6, 2021, and Nov. 20, 2021, fuel spills at Red Hill that contaminated a nearby well used by 93,000 people including Hawaii military families, sickening nearly 6,000. 

The leak and the environmental damage it caused prompted the Pentagon to order the facility’s closure in March with the goal of fully defueling and shuttering Red Hill in the next year.

In a call with reporters ahead of the report’s release, U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Samuel Paparo said the Navy “accepts responsibility for what happened,” noting that it was the combined result of “multiple human errors over a period of several months.” 

“As members of this community, we have a solemn obligation to be good stewards of the environment and good neighbors to one another,” Paparo said. “The contamination of the Navy water systems severely disrupted their lives, their livelihood and their well-being and the well-being of our workforce, our families and our communities.” 

The spills in question include an initial release of some 20,000 gallons of fuel on May 6, after facility operators improperly began a transfer that spilled into a fuel suppression system. At the time, the facility and its commanders didn’t realize the extent of the mishap, incorrectly believing only about 1,580 gallons had spilled. 

The fuel suppression system retention lines then held the bulk of the 20,000 gallons, the weight of which caused the PVC pipes to sag. 

On November 20, 2021, an operator hit the line with a small underground passenger train cart, causing the fuel to pour out.  

Navy officials did not immediately act as they first believed the liquid was a mixture of fuel and water and there was no threat to the environment or to groundwater. Service officials, not understanding all the paths to the well, insisted that fuel could not seep through concrete, according to the investigation.  

But a week later, complaints began to come in, with residents telling the facility that their water smelled of fuel, with reports of nausea, dizziness and vomiting, leading the Navy to shut down its Red Hill well on Nov. 28, 2021. 

Paparo said that leaders on the scene in November were slow to correct initial reports that the November spill was water and made “overly optimistic assessments” that the fuel leak was contained. 

“This prevented senior Navy leaders from fully appreciating the risk to the environment in the days following the Nov. 20 spill,” he told reporters. 

Though human error was found to be the initial cause of the leaks, the situation was compounded by leaders’ lack of knowledge on how the drinking water could be affected and failure to respond, according to the investigation. 

Making matters worse, “during both incidents, no one individual unambiguously took control of the scene,” Paparo said. 

Of the roughly 20,000 gallons of fuel spilled, about 4,772 gallons remain unaccounted for.  

The investigation does not make any recommendations on disciplinary or administrative actions for individuals involved, though Paparo noted that a “number of people” are “no longer in their assigned duties.” 

He added that any such decisions will come from a separate process led by U.S. Fleet Forces head Adm. Daryl Caudle. 

He did not say how many individuals might be affected or give a timeline for disciplinary decisions.  

The Navy is not due to finish defueling Red Hill until Dec. 31, 2024, at the earliest, according to the service’s defueling plan, announced in March. 

Tags fuel leak Hawaii Hawaii fuel leak Navy Navy investigation
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