Navy officials still not sure what caused spill of toxic fire suppressant at Red Hill facility

The toxic solvents came from a supply line as maintenance was being conducted. An 1,100 gallon tank is now empty.
Published: Nov. 29, 2022 at 6:58 PM HST|Updated: Nov. 30, 2022 at 5:56 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The military says it’s still trying to determine why over 1,100 gallons of highly toxic fire suppressant spilled at the Red Hill facility on Tuesday afternoon, triggering a large-scale cleanup effort.

Rear Admiral John Wade, commander of the Joint Task Force, said at a news conference Wednesday that the spill is “very concerning” and that he’s working to make sure a similar incident doesn’t happen again.

He added that the spill happened while the fire suppression system was undergoing preventative maintenance.

“We don’t know if it was a contributing factor or not,” Wade said. “My team and I must understand what happened. We’ve got to prevent incidents like this from happening again.”

Military officials also stressed water from the Navy system continues to be safe to drink.

The spill happened about 1 p.m. Tuesday about one mile mauka of the Red Hill shaft, which was contaminated last year with fuel from the underground fuel facility.

Ernie Lau, chief engineer at the Board of Water Supply, said he was informed about the incident about 7 p.m. Tuesday. The Navy said they told the Health Department and the Navy, however, by about 2:30 p.m.

The spill happened about 1 p.m. Tuesday about one mile mauka of the Red Hill shaft.

“We need to know right away when something as serious as this has happened,” Lau said, adding that he’s asked the EPA to increase monitoring of the fire suppressant in the ground given the ongoing risks.

“We do not want to see these types of chemicals being released over our important aquifers.”

The substance that spilled was identified as Aqueous Film Forming Foam or AFFF.

It’s a fire suppressant and a known hazard to humans and animals.

The main concern: That the substance could leak into aquifers that sit just below the Red Hill facility.


“This is egregious,” said Kathleen Ho, Deputy Director of Environmental Health in a news release Tuesday. “AFFF contains PFAS forever chemicals — groundwater contamination could be devastating to our aquifer.”

DOH said when released into the environment, PFAs create persistent hazards to people and the environment.

As part of a special series, “Red Hill: One Year Later,” Hawaii News Now is taking an in-depth look at an environmental and public disaster whose impacts continue to be felt. See more coverage here.

Environmentalists expressed outrage after the spill came to light.

“They knew this facility is just 100 feet above our aquifer,” Sierra Club of Hawaii Director Wayne Tanaka said.

“They know rain, water constantly infiltrates and passes through this red hill facility into the ground and eventually into the groundwater. And they still chose to use firefighting foam that has these forever chemicals.”

“It’s just outrageous that they would be so reckless with our lives and with our future,” Tanaka added.

Civil Beat investigative reporter Christina Jedra has researched the Red Hill firefighting system and said it’s been “dysfunctional for years.”

“There’s actually two parts, one from decades ago, and one that was made in the last few years and updated in 2019.”

“And there was a leak discovered in the newer part that was ordered for repairs last year and the Navy actually drained the AFFF from that part of the system and fear that AFFF in fear that would leak from that pipeline.”

Regarding questions about containment, the Navy said there was “no active leaking” at 2 p.m.

They added that they’re currently conducting tests and investigating just how much foam ended up in the soil.

The Navy said the Joint Task Force for Red Hill is working cooperatively with the Navy Region Hawaii and an investigation remains ongoing.

State health officials told Hawaii News Now they will be monitoring the Navy’s clean up very closely and they have an on-site coordinator overseeing the entire process.

Correction: The 2021 fuels spills were not mixed with AFFF.