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New timeline of events sheds light on failures that led to Navy’s ongoing water crisis

A cart that crashed into a pipe inside one of the tunnels beneath the Navy’s fuel storage facility triggered the spill that ultimately contaminated the military
Published: Dec. 29, 2021 at 3:50 PM HST|Updated: Dec. 29, 2021 at 8:19 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A cart that crashed into a pipe inside one of the tunnels beneath the Navy’s fuel storage facility triggered the spill that ultimately contaminated the military’s water system.

That’s according to multiple sources, including Lt. Gov. Josh Green.

That crash happened Nov. 20, and the pipe that was damaged was supposed to have been empty.

But officials say it filled with fuel from a previous spill that no one knew was there, according to a new timeline of events that’s shedding light on the failures that led to the ongoing crisis.

“(The cart) it looks like kind of a golf cart but can carry large boxes and some heavy things,” Green said.

He said Navy officials showed him the exact spot where the crash happened during a recent tour of the facility. Military sources confirm the operator of a cart hit a valve on discharge pipe that’s typically empty. The damage triggered a spill no one was expecting.

“A series of accidents had to occur. But they did occur,” Green said.

To understand how the fuel got into that pipe in the first place you have to go back to May 6.

That’s when officials say human error caused another pipe to burst while fuel was being transferred between tanks.

The Navy didn’t realize how much had gotten out, HNN has learned.

The fuel that wasn’t contained was said to have flowed into a tunnel beneath the tanks and was captured by a large sump pump.

Sources say operators never knew the pumps turned on, flushing the fuel into the discharge pipe.

Officials say the fuel sat there for months until the cart crash triggered the November spill.

“There had been probably somewhere between 12,000 and 14,000 gallons of fuel spilled which we were able to see in the Red Hill Shaft,” Green said. “It got absorbed into the ground.”

Eight days later, residents on the Navy’s water system began reporting a petroleum smell, an odd taste and an oily sheen on their tap water.

On Wednesday morning at a briefing for lawmakers, top Navy commanders repeated their promise to invite independent experts to investigate operations as well as the future of the Red Hill system.

“Can we operate it safely? What things need to be changed to do that? Or do decisions need to be made to discontinue operations. I think that’s all within the scope of the investigation,” said U.S. Pacific Fleet Rear Adm. Blake Converse.

Meanwhile, Green is joining most state leaders in saying the risk of leaving the fuel storage facility above Oahu’s most important aquifer is too great.

“It’s evident that the fuel has to become safer and that means moving it above ground,” he said.

Navy officials confirm the Nov. 20 spill was the results of human error but wouldn’t comment on the incident further.

Sources say an investigation is underway to determine why the cart hit the pipe as well as what the cart operator saw and what he reported.

The Navy also renewed its fight on Wednesday against the state’s order to drain the Red Hill underground fuel tanks.

In a 43-page list of objections, the Navy disputed that the facility poses an imminent peril to the water supply. Officials said a state hearings officer excluded evidence.

The Navy’s lawyer said recent spills and the water contamination were mostly human error and not due to the poor design or aging of the tanks.

A state official will review the objections before making another ruling. But, after that the Navy can still appeal to the courts.

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