HONOLULU (AP) – After initially resisting, the US Navy will comply with Hawaii’s order to remove fuel from a huge underground storage tank facility near Pearl Harbor responsible for contaminating drinking water, officials said Tuesday.
During the US House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness hearing, Rear Admiral Blake Converse said the Navy was preparing to defuel the facility.
“The Navy created this problem, we own it, and we’re going to fix it,” said Converse, deputy commander of the US Pacific Fleet.
Read more: Navy says more time needed to remove jet fuel from Pearl Harbor drinking water
The Navy’s water system serves approximately 93,000 people in residential homes, offices, elementary schools and businesses in and around Pearl Harbor. In late November, nearly 1,000 people complained that their tap water smelled like fuel or reported physical ailments such as nausea and rashes after consuming it.
After petroleum was found in a drinking well, Hawaii ordered the Navy to remove fuel from tanks to protect Oahu’s drinking water. Navy officials said the Hawaiian order was not necessary because on 20 November they believed the water had been contaminated inside an access tunnel and did not believe the tanks themselves were to blame.
The Navy opposed Hawaii’s order, leading to a hearing in December before a deputy state attorney general. The trial officer concluded that the tanks were a “ticking time bomb” and that the order needed to be upheld.
The Red Hill facility consists of 20 massive underground tanks built on the side of a mountain during World War II. Each tank is approximately equal to the height of a 25-storey building. Collectively, they can hold up to 250 million gallons (946 million litres) of fuel, although two of the tanks are now empty.
Converse said on Tuesday that US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Samuel Paparo was directed to comply with the order when the Hawaii Department of Health finalized it last week.
The Navy believes its water system was contaminated with jet fuel that leaked from pipes connected to the Red Hill tank. It detected jet fuel in a well that spilled onto an aquifer just 100 feet (30 m) below the tank complex.
So far, only navy’s drinking water has been stained. Petroleum does not show up in the municipal water system operated by the Honolulu Water Supply Board. But the utility draws water from the aquifer, similar to the navy.
Hawaii officials are concerned that petroleum may transfer from the area of the Navy well through the aquifer to the water utility’s pudding well and poison the city’s drinking water. The Water Supply Board has suspended use of its pudding well, which supplies about one-quarter of the water consumed in urban Honolulu, to try to prevent petroleum from infecting its water system .
See more: Navy’s water contamination flow in Hawaii follows warning signs for 8 years
Sierra Club of Hawaii director Wayne Tanaka, who has long struggled to shut down the tanks, welcomed the Navy’s decision to comply with the order.
“I hope they are finally seeing the light and acknowledging this feature is an inherent threat to our water supply,” Tanaka said.
He said the state health department, Hawaii’s congressional delegation and others will need to ensure that the Navy meets the deadlines included in the department’s order.
The Navy will have to submit an implementation and action plan by early February. After the health department approves the plan, the Navy has 30 days to defuel the tanks.
“It is our sincere expectation that the Navy will comply with the law by following the final order,” said Katie Arita-Chang, a spokeswoman for the Hawaii Department of Health.
Converse said operating the facility would have minimal impact, but not continuing to operate it after February would come at a cost.
He said he did not have details about the costs and risks to national security of the facility’s continued non-operation.
“Let me be clear, clean drinking water is national security,” Kayali Kahele, the US Representative for Hawaii, said during the hearing.