Investigation reveals 2021 chemical spill at Pearl Harbor that public didn’t know about

It happened a month before the Red Hill incident, which overshadowed the spill, and it flew under the radar -- until now.
Published: May. 4, 2023 at 5:31 PM HST|Updated: May. 5, 2023 at 12:24 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - HNN Investigates confirmed a previously undisclosed chemical spill at Pearl Harbor. This one happened more than year and a half ago, but the public never knew about it until now.

The spill occurred one month before the Red Hill fuel leaks tainted the Navy’s drinking water system, and that crisis overshadowed the incident.

On Oct. 26, 2021, around 2:30 in the afternoon, roughly 300,000 gallons of water burst from a water main adjacent to the Fire Suppression Pumphouse on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

The Navy says the water filled the berm area of its Fuel Oil Reclamation Facility and mixed with product from the oil water separators.

“Here is another enormous spill. Huge blast. That no one bothered to tell anybody about,” said Kristina Baehr, the attorney for more than 100 plaintiffs suing the U.S. government over the Red Hill fuel leaks.

Military officials on Friday are set to release to the public video footage of the highly toxic fire suppressant foam spill at the Red Hill facility.

Sources told Hawaii News Now they believe the contaminated mixture included up to 3,000 gallons of fuel and showed signs of AFFF (Aqueous Film Forming Foam) contamination, a toxic firefighting foam.

“We had what we thought was visible signs of foaming that would indicate that there was AFFF,” said a source.

There was a previous AFFF spill in 2019 at the site where the Navy said the contaminated soil was excavated.

For this incident, confidential sources say the cleanup was delayed two and half days because of an internal funding dispute within the Navy.

The storage tanks arrived at the scene late Oct. 28 and the defueling and cleanup began the next morning.

“For two and a half days, we were just sitting there watching it recede,” said the source.

“The secondary containment was found to be not fully watertight. Some of the 300,000 gallons of water did seep into the ground under the FORFAC facility,” said MCC(AW) Chris Blachly, Navy Region Hawaii Public Affairs.

Crews collected floating oil and the Navy says the spill did not impact the drinking water supply, but there was no testing of the contaminated mixture.

“No testing of the water collected from the 2021 release has occurred to date,” added the statement.

“They don’t test for something because they don’t want to find it,” said Baehr.

A month later, fuel spilled from the Red Hill fuel tanks and the tainted water crisis gripped the entire state.

Today, five tanks with the contaminated mixture still sit at Pearl Harbor more than a year and half after the spill.

“It’s just outrageous to me,” said the source.

“There are people internally who are saying we need to raise the alarm and then the superiors are saying shh. That’s what’s happening,” said Baehr.

The Navy says the contaminated water in the tanks will be tested, but had no timeline for disposal.

Late Thursday afternoon, the Navy released an additional statement that the tanks are waiting for disposal as “PFAS-affected waste.” PFAS are the toxic forever chemicals in AFFF.

“No notifications were made because there was no requirement for a water spill like this. However, we are working with the regulators to determine if additional investigation is required,” said the additional statement.