Despite concerns and criticism, EPA insists consent order on Red Hill fuel facility’s shutdown is necessary

“Now that we have a draft consent order, we are very committed to engage with the community.
Published: Jan. 18, 2023 at 5:42 PM HST|Updated: Jan. 18, 2023 at 9:43 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The EPA said it was seeking community input on a proposed consent decree requiring the Navy to defuel Red Hill and shut down the facility.

The order also contains specific actions to operate and maintain the Navy’s drinking water system at Pearl Harbor, which was contaminated by fuel spills in 2021.

But the vast majority of those attending a town hall meeting at the Oahu Veterans Center Wednesday were critical of the order, saying it didn’t go far enough.

The Board of Water Supply also says the proposal could drag out the defueling.

EPA Pacific Southwest Region’s Enforcement Director, Amy Miller told Hawaii News Now the federal agency is beefing up staffing in Hawaii to deal with the Red Hill crisis. She insists its proposed order doesn’t conflict with the state’s emergency order.

The Navy had announced the defueling plan over the summer, “And we needed to get something in place so tha we had oversight,” Miller told the town hall gathering.

“Now that we have a draft consent order, we are very committed to engage with the community.

That order requires the Navy to take out the Red Hill fuel, which sits just above Oahu’s aquifer.

But critics at the meeting say it didn’t go far enough in protecting the drinking water for all of Oahu’s residents, not just the military.

“There’s not enough concern with respect to the protection of the aquifer,” said Gina Hara, one of the testifiers. “It’s only what the Navy thinks it should do without even consulting the Board of Water Supply.”

“I, by law, have to work with the DPA and the Department of Health. But I recognize the Board of Water Supply and their role and contributions,” said Vice Adm. John Waide, who heads Joint Task Force Red Hill, and is overseeing the defueling for the Navy.

But board Chief Engineer Ernie Lau said the EPA needs to be more aggressive. The Board of Water Supply sent a letter to thousands of its water customers opposing the EPA’s proposed consent order with six reasons, including the fact that there are no clear deadlines and no strict penalties.

“How can you make this thing detailed enough with accountability, hard deadlines and consequences for the DOD not performing to hold their feet to the fire, because this is too general. This is too vague,” said Lau, drawing applause from the crowd.

Amanda Zawieruszynski, who said she was sickened by the tainted water, told Miller, “Ma’am, I now you don’t handle health care. But something has to be put in there that if they poison us, or we get hurt or we’re in the hospital, and they’re hold responsible, individually.”

Others demanded more communication from the Navy.

“You can’t do that? Because you’re at the Washington D.C. level? Because you’re waiting for your next promotion?,” asked Pat Tobara. “Come on!”

“Part of my mission is to rebuild trust,” said Wade. “Rebuilding trust is really hard where we are right now.”

Hawaii News Now asked if the EPA thinks the military can stick to its mid-2024 deadline to defuel Red Hill.

“We want to make sure that they meet that goal that they’ve put out for themselves and we want to make sure that it’s done in a safe manner,” said Miller.

The order also doesn’t address the latest spill of AFFF or fire fighting foam concentrate.

EPA says the latest AFFF spill is a separate investigation.

“EPA, its primary mission is to protect human health and the environment. We are very committed to our responsibilities for oversight and we believe that this agreement will give us the tools to do that,” said Miller.

The EPA says the public comment period ends Feb. 6, but doesn’t yet have a specific timeline on when it could be implemented.

At the town hall, Lau had an admonition for the Navy.

“Since the last nine years I’ve worked with multiple admirals on this issues, trying to work with them, trying to talk to them,” he said.“The oily, rusty, leaky can was kicked down the road by those others. Now it rests squarely in your laps.”