EPA: Groundwater contamination at Red Hill fuel facility dates back to 2005

State and federal regulators say groundwater contamination at the Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility goes back nearly two decades.
Published: Feb. 13, 2023 at 4:26 PM HST|Updated: Feb. 13, 2023 at 4:50 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - State and federal regulators say groundwater contamination at the Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility goes back nearly two decades.

The military is working on repairs to Red Hill to prepare it for defueling as an investigation into the latest toxic fire suppressant spill is still going on.

In an exclusive interview with the Environmental Protection Agency and state Health Department, the regulators are shedding light on the history of contamination.

The 2021 fuel spills from Red Hill contaminated the Pearl Harbor drinking water system and sickened thousands of people. That’s why the DOH and EPA say careful monitoring of the drinking water today is necessary.

“It’s very likely there is some old fuel tucked away in the aquifer in different places,” said Fenix Grange, Department of Health groundwater lead.

The EPA says contamination of the groundwater from the Red Hill facility goes back 18 years.

“Since 2005, there’s been groundwater monitoring data to be able to monitor the plume underneath Red Hill,” said Alison Fong, assistant director of the EPA’s Resource Conservation Recovery Act Branch.

The latest spill, which happened last year, was of 1,300 gallons of a fire suppressant that contains what’s known as PFAS or “forever chemicals” Regulators are worried if about it mixing with the fuel plume.

Health investigators say PFAS compounds in toxic firefighting foam are like dish soap, which repel and break down oils. Regulators says the concern is if the PFAS compounds run into past fuel spills, the fuel could spread.

“If it was able to migrate far down into the aquifer and run into oil than it might conceivably mobilize that oil,” said Grange.

Regulators say Navy reports show spills going back to 1947, just four years after the World War II-era facility was built. The military first reported a spill to the state 25 years ago, a year after Hawaii’s environmental law was enacted.

“In 1998, we got the first notification from the Red Hill facility about fuel that they found, contaminated soil that they found when they were putting in borings underneath each of the tanks,” said Grange.

The EPA says groundwater monitoring results suggest the contamination is not expanding, but more study is needed.

“It is very important that the results from new groundwater monitoring wells are scheduled to be installed in 2023 confirm that hypothesis,” Fong told Hawaii News Now.

To help track the contamination, the Health Department is planning a study to release non-toxic florescent dye at Red Hill so it can track where the water is flowing.