Red Hill’s firefighting system was damaged long before the contamination crisis

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As the public awaits the results of the Navy’s investigation into its fuel contamination crisis in Hawaii, a Navy document shows the fire suppression system at the center of the probe a cause for concern For years.

In December 2019, part of the fire suppression system that was installed in the 1980s suffered a pump failure, according to a publicly available Navy memo. Another part of the system, installed in 2017 and expanded in 2019, had a leak that needed repair last year, but the Navy didn’t know where the leak was, according to the memo.

In March, both parts of the system had experienced an “unexpected operational failure” and were only deploying water – not fire-fighting foam – on a fuel fire, according to the memo from Naval Facilities Engineering Systems. Command, which was written to justify hiring a contractor to resolve issues.

Such a scenario would cause “catastrophic” damage to the World War II-era facility, the Navy said.

“Operation of this fuel facility without a reliable fire protection system is not an acceptable course of action,” the memo reads.

Red Hill’s fire suppression system needs repair and would have to be manually activated in the event of a fire, a Navy spokeswoman said. Courtesy: State Senate/2022

Today, thousands of military families have been displaced from their homes by a water contamination crisis the Navy has linked to the Red Hill fire suppression system. The memo shows Navy officials had serious concerns about its operation months, if not years, before fuel was spewed through one of its pipelines into the drinking water supply of 93,000 people.

It’s unclear whether the faults identified in the memo are related to the recent leaks, but they’re the latest example of disrepair in the underground network of massive storage tanks and pipelines that for decades supplied fuel to ships, planes and other military assets in the vicinity of Pearl Harbor.

Even now, the fire suppression system still isn’t working as it should, despite ordering over $40 million in upgrades in 2015.

If a fire broke out at Red Hill, the firefighting system would automatically deploy water, but firefighting foam would have to be manually activated by facility personnel, according to Navy spokeswoman Lydia Robertson.

“The associated AFFF system is currently in manual mode due to some repairs, but is manned 24/7 and can be activated immediately via an established permanent operating procedure in the event of a fire,” it said. she said in a statement.

“We are committed to providing a safe working environment for all of our staff, to the safety and well-being of our workers and to ensuring the safety of the facility,” she added.

The Navy declined to answer questions about specific system shortcomings described in the memo.

Military officials believe the fuel that contaminated drinking water sat in a fire extinguisher drain line for months, officials said at the state health department.

This pipeline, which Robertson said was installed in 2019, is supposed to collect firefighting foam and water after a fire and deliver it to an aboveground storage tank.. Captain Gordie Meyer told a hearing in December that under normal conditions this drain line is supposed to remain empty.

Listen to Meyer describe how the Navy believes the leak happened:

Navy officials said they suspect fuel entered the drain line after a leak on May 6. , according to the Navy.

For reasons that are unclear, the fire suppression drain line did not pump these contents to the aboveground storage tank. The Navy did not provide an explanation as to why.

Instead, the fuel remained in the drain line until Nov. 20, when a cart allegedly crashed into the line and dumped fuel into the tunnel, the Navy said. JThe Navy believes the fuel drained into another drain line in the ground meant to collect rainwater – a line the Navy didn’t know was there, Navy officials told the AFP. legislators.

Graphic showing the Red Hill reservoirs and how contaminated water can flow directly into the Red Hill well
This graphic, shared by Rep. Kai Kahele, depicts the Red Hill Reservoirs and how contaminated water can flow directly into the Red Hill Well’s ‘infiltration gallery’, from which the water was pumped. Presentation by Kai Kahele/2022

The site of the Nov. 20 leak is just a quarter mile from the Red Hill Well, the potable water well that serves the Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam distribution system. After the leak, the well contained levels of hydrocarbons in the gasoline and diesel range at levels 350 times higher than the state’s threshold for drinking water, according to tests conducted by the Hawaii Department of Health.

Marti Townsendwho protested Navy fuel operations for years as executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, said years of problems with the fire suppression system are further proof that the only option is to close Red Hill.

“The Navy has tried, and they haven’t been able to effectively manage this facility and all of its complexities in a way that protects our environment,” she said. “It was not designed to run that long.

Ann Wright, an Army veteran and environmental activist, said the Navy memo also raises worker safety concerns.

Putting water on a grease fire is known to spread a fire. And in 2014, the Department of Defense said the nature of operations at the Red Hill fuel facility creates a “high potential” for fires.

A growing number of residents are calling for the closure of the Red Hill fuel facility. The army is fighting. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“It’s horribly negligent of them not to have a firefighting capability had there been some sort of explosion or fire that would have – God only knows if the whole red hill would have blown up or what” , Wright said.

In early December, the Hawaii Department of Health ordered the Navy to cease all operations at Red Hill, install a water treatment plant to address the contamination it caused, and drain its fuel system until it can demonstrate that it can operate safely.

The Navy initially said it would comply with the order, but the US Department of Justice later filed legal challenges in state and federal courts.

The federal government’s decision to fight the order was not well received by the community or local, state, and federal officials in Hawaii. Honolulu City Council members said the Navy was at risk of losing its land leases, and Hawaii senators told the Secretary of the Navy in a letter to “repair your damaged military assets and your damaged relationship with the State of Hawaii”.

The Hawaii Department of Health said in a statement that the Navy never notified regulators of any issues with its fire suppression system.

“The DOH became aware of potential issues with the fire suppression system in late December 2021 after performing an inspection of the installation,” the DOH said. “It is imperative that the Navy comply with the DOH emergency order to safely refuel Red Hill.”

The Environmental Protection Agency said in a brief statement that it had not been involved in monitoring the Navy’s fire suppression system.

The results of the Navy’s investigation into the cause of the water contamination were submitted to Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet on January 14, but have not yet been made public.

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