Navy claims success in removing fuel contamination around Red Hill tank farm

Since the DOH ordered the pumping of the Red Hill shaft 18 months ago, more than 2.3 billion gallons of fresh filtered water has been released into the sea
Published: Jun. 12, 2023 at 5:56 PM HST|Updated: Jun. 12, 2023 at 5:57 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Navy says it has made dramatic progress cleaning out its contaminated well at Red Hill and is cutting back on the millions of gallons of water being dumped down Halawa Stream.

But some environmentalists are still suspicious about those claims — and regret the waste of drinking water.

Since the Department of Health ordered the pumping of the Red Hill shaft 18 months ago, more than 2.3 billion gallons of fresh, filtered water have gone down the Halawa Stream into the sea

The pumping of up to 5 million gallons a day through giant Granulated Activated Charcoal filters — called GACs — was part of a strategy agreed to by the Navy, EPA, Health Department and environmental groups to prevent contamination from spreading towards wells used for the civilian water supply.

Divers and later mechanical skimmers collected petroleum that rose to the surface of the capture zone at the top of the aquifer

Comparing recent “heat maps” showing the plume of petroleum contamination, the strategy seems to have reduced evidence of contamination around the Red Hill Fuel Facility, which was the site of many spills through the years, including two large spills in 2021, according to the Navy.

The facility’s 20 tanks, which sit only 100 feet above Oahu’s primary drinking water aquifer, are due for defueling and decommissioning by next year.

The heat maps show that In late 2021, immediately after the second big fuel spill, the plume from the tanks extended north, west and Eest of the tank farm. But by early this year, the plume looked less concentrated and much smaller — almost to the size of contamination plume before the spills.

Because of the results, the Navy got DOH permission to reduce the pumping from 5 million to 1.8 million gallons a day. On Monday, the stream looked drier — and schools of fish gathered at the meager flow.

But some leading clean water advocates, including former Sierra Club Hawaii Director Marti Townsend, still mistrust the Navy’s optimism.

“While I reluctantly supported the idea of flushing the water from the aquifer ... time has shown that that theory did not pan out, it was a failure,” Townsend said.

Townsend says she believes the contamination has just moved out of range of the monitoring system and billions of gallons of water have been wasted.

“There’s so many things to be mad about Red Hill,” Townsend said.

The Navy and Board of Water Supply are drilling more monitoring wells in hopes the good news can be confirmed.