US Military Fuel Tanks Threaten Aquifer in Hawaii

A major spill of jet fuel in 2014 should have shut down this aging, leaking, storage complex, says Ann Wright.

By Ann Wright
in Honolulu
Special to Consortium News

The North Korean missile scare in Hawaii a year ago was alarming.  But that fear has abated. Once again the greatest perceived threat to the island of Oahu comes  from our own U.S. military.

A massive complex of 20 U.S. military storage tanks is buried in a bluff called Red Hill that overlooks Honolulu’s primary drinking water supply, 100 feet below.

The walls on the 75-year-old jet fuel tanks are now so thin that the edge of a dime is thicker.  Each of the underground tanks holds 12.5 million gallons of jet fuel; 225,000,000 gallons in total.

In 2014, 27,000 gallons of jet fuel leaked through a weak spot on a tank that had been repaired with a welded patch.  The welding gave way and the fuel entered the the water supply.  

Oahu beach.

An Ohau beach.

Drinking water is currently safe to drink, but traces of petroleum chemicals are being detected in the groundwater near the tanks.  

Leaks have been going on for years. Studies have documented them since 1947. The continued corrosion of the tank liners constantly risks a catastrophic fuel release. 

Concerned citizens on the island have for decades been trying to get the U.S. Navy to remove the tanks. The military’s position is that the fuel tanks are of strategic importance to U.S. national security and are being maintained as well as 75-year old tanks can be.

Formidable Opponent

The military is a formidable political opponent here.

Military expenditures in Hawaii—direct and indirect combined— generate $14.7 billion into Hawaii’s economy, creating more than 102,000 jobs. Military procurement contracts amount to about $2.3 billion annually, making it a prime source of contracting opportunities for hundreds of Hawaii’s small businesses, including significant military construction projects.

The state of Hawaii is one of the most militarized states in the nation. Oahu is one of the most militarized islands. It has seven major U.S. military bases, including Pearl Harbor Naval and Hickam Air Force, headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Air Forces.

U.S. Marines in exercise at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, 2004. (United States Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 1st Class Jane West)

U.S. Marines in exercise at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, 2004. (Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Jane West, U.S. Navy)

The island has a total of 36,620 military personnel spread over the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard.  When the 64,000 military family members and military contractors are added to the active duty military, the military-industrial complex on Oahu numbers about 100,000, 10 percent of Oahu’s total population of 988,000.

The U.S. has acknowledged the medical problems the contamination of the drinking supply caused at another community; the huge U.S. Marine Base at Camp Lejeune, N. C., and Marine Corps Air Station in New River, North Carolina.

From 1953 through 1987, tens of thousands of Marines and their families were exposed to two on-base water wells that were contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (PCE), benzene, vinyl chloride among other compounds from on-base leaking storage tanks and an off-base dry cleaner. 

At long last, the Veterans Administration has acknowledged the dangerous situation on the bases in North Carolina that was ignored for decades.  The VA has declared that a large number of diseases are caused by the chemicals and that military and family members who have contracted these diseases and who are still living will be compensated. 

On the other side of the country from North Carolina, the Navy has already closed down one complex of underground jet fuel storage tanks at Point Loma, California, which had 54 storage tanks.  The riveted seams on the underground tanks began leaking as they aged.  When 1.5 million gallons of fuel spilled from the site in 2006, the U.S. Navy was decided to replace the tanks.

Question of When, Not If 

For us on Oahu, the bottom line is that when —not if —the massive jet fuel storage tanks leak into the aquifer of Honolulu, city, state and federal officials must be held accountable. The public has given them plenty of warning of their concerns. 

In Flint, Mich., officials also knew that the drinking water was contaminated. They didn’t do anything to stop the community from using it. Remarkably, no Flint official has gone to jail yet, but the community is demanding accountability for malfeasance in office—which would be the same in Honolulu when disaster strikes on the jet fuel storage tanks. 

I will make this personal. 

I am 72 years old and served 29 years in the U.S. military. I retired 20 years ago.  The 20 jet fuel storage tanks are 75 years old and have served each of those 75 years and are still serving. 

At 72, I have had the normal number of aches and pains including a hip replacement that didn’t turn out the best and skin cancer surgery that left skin grafts and patches on my face, head and leg.

At 75, the 20-story jet fuel storage tanks also have had aches and pains as well as their skin getting thinner and thinner due to seven decades of corrosion.   Patching of the thin skin of the Red Hill jet fuel tanks didn’t turn out so well either, with the welding on one of the patches giving way in 2014. 

Those of us in our 70s, whether we are fuel tanks or humans, know all about leaks—it’s a hazard of age.

I retired from the U.S. Army after 29 years of service.  After 75 years of service, it’s time to retire the leaking Red Hill Storage tanks—and protect our precious water supply.

Colonel Ann Wright served 29 years in the U.S. Army and Army Reserve.  She was a U.S. diplomat for 16 years and served in U.S. Embassies in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia.  She resigned from the U.S. government in 2003 in opposition to the U.S. war on Iraq.  She lives in Honolulu and is a member of Hawaii Peace and Justice and Veterans for Peace-Hawaii.

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19 comments for “US Military Fuel Tanks Threaten Aquifer in Hawaii

  1. KiwiAntz
    February 10, 2019 at 01:19

    Hawaii is another Country that has had its Sovereignty usurped & its Lands stolen by one of America’s first Coup d’état’s. Yankee, get out of Hawaii & take your evil Military with you!

  2. Dennis D
    February 9, 2019 at 08:08

    There is more to the problem than leaks from old tanks, there was intentional contamination with no regard for the environment. I was stationed at NAS Barbers Point on Oahu from 1968-1971 where I was assigned to refuel aircraft for about a year. Occasionally, due to the long working hours supporting the Vietnam war a 5000 gallon aviation gas truck was topped up with jet fuel or vice versa. The 5000 gallons were declared unusable and we were ordered to dump the entire 5000 gallons in to a 12″ wide hole drilled into the coral. As I personally dumped 10,000 gallons into that hole who knows how many thousands of gallons of fuel were dumped down that hole over the years or what other toxic substances may in there. I have been troubled for over 50 years by this.

    • Sam F
      February 9, 2019 at 18:49

      Dennis, if you have an idea where that hole is, and make a statement recording your best recollections and estimates, you might begin or assist a public interest report to the EPA and/or an international authority, or investigation. The public certainly should know what immoral acts were undertaken under the guise of public interest.

      • Curious
        February 10, 2019 at 22:30

        Great idea Sam F,

        Not only would it help his troubled 50 year rememberance it may even trigger more responses from vets who know what they were told to do was wrong. A collective effort from these people may have a positive effect on some cleanup issues which are badly needed. Let the truth, and maps of locations, be known and shame the Pentagon into cleaning up their trash. A public protest of these vets should carry some weight that couldn’t just be shrugged off, especially in beautiful Hawaii and elsewhere.

        • Dennis D
          February 11, 2019 at 10:16

          Curious and Sam
          As Sam suggested I did contact an organization that is trying to preserve a portion of NAS Barbers Point (Ewa Field) as a historic site. They replied within a few hours indicating that they felt the information I had was important and set up an appointment to speak with me tomorrow morning. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

          • Curious
            February 11, 2019 at 18:25

            Good news Dennis D and thank you for your efforts,

            I often think the solutions will come from people like you who were there, as it won’t come from the top down. If you have a moment, could you please give me your thoughts on why there isn’t more of a grassroots level movement from vets who know where the problems may exist? Are they not motivated, don’t want to bust their compadres, or do they not have a proper platform to organize and inform the people who care about the environment? To hear about this organization you have contacted is wonderful news and a great start. We have met with groups over the years and the walls are many. The Hanford cleanup is a good example of glacial movement.

            I have often wondered about this as I read about the 50 gall drums of Agent Orange dug up last year (or the year before) in Okinawa. Somebody knows about these dumps. I think our vets could be a powerful force for good in this respect, but I may be simply naive, due to $$$$ issues.
            Thanks

        • Dennis D
          February 12, 2019 at 04:39

          Curious and Sam

          I had a discussion with the Ewa Field Battlefield organization that is trying to preserve the old Ewa airfield located north east of NAS Barbers Point (now Kalaeloa airport). However, the location where I dumped the fuel is to the northwest of the present airport and I am not sure would be of much interest to them. I did identify the old refueler pool Quonset hut via a satellite photo and if confirmed by someone on the ground I can point out the location of the hole within a 30 foot radius. As the land is now back in the public domain I feel the least I can do is make someone aware of what occurred there.

          • February 13, 2019 at 10:50

            Thanks so much Dennis for your comments and work to identify the location of the fuel dump at Barber’s Point. Its very important for us to know! I would like to be in touch with the Ewa Field Battlefield organization. Could you give me a point of contact. Thanks, Ann

          • Dennis D
            February 16, 2019 at 01:57

            Ann Wright

            The contact info you requested is listed in “ewabattlefield.com”. I have been speaking with Bob Nardi. He has my contact info and I have given him permission to share it if I can be of any assistance.
            Dennis

  3. John Allen aka Ol' Hippy
    February 9, 2019 at 07:17

    There are leaking underground fuel tanks at Kirtland AFB here in Albuquerque, NM. The cleanup has been ongoing for years. Our city’s aquifer is still being threatened after 50+ years.This is unacceptable and with any oversite would not have continued for years.

  4. polistra
    February 9, 2019 at 03:29

    Somebody is clearly manufacturing a “crisis” about water supplies near military bases. Parts per trillion chemicals that are common everywhere, and present in water for decades, are suddenly a “crisis”. We should be asking WHO is manufacturing this “crisis” and WHY. We shouldn’t be mindlessly HELPING every fake “crisis” unless we know, based on REAL science, that it’s a new problem.

  5. Sam F
    February 8, 2019 at 22:13

    EPA regulations require the removal of underground storage tanks USTs over 20 years old. The US military may flaunt regulations but a public interest lawsuit could very well succeed on the grounds that this establishes deliberate endangerment of public health, especially in Hawaii, where there is much rainfall that accelerates rust, and many earthquakes. The extraordinary risk to a public water supply shows extreme irresponsibility. It also shows a complete absence of concern with protecting the people of the US: exactly what is DoD defending, other than the misuse of public funds? Ideally the city would sue the USG for reckless endangerment, and demand replacement of the tanks, or a surety bond of several times the likely direct and consequent damages.

    • Sam F
      February 9, 2019 at 16:28

      Because the tanks will have to be replaced within a few years anyway, the design process should begin now so that the new facility will be ready before disaster strikes. This will be far cheaper and result in far better preparedness than waiting for a tank failure, which would also add damages for pollution, water supply deprivation, and any consequent injuries. They might build two half-size facilities in independent locations, for example, and fill the first facility completed from the old tank when they are drawn down to half. Then rebuild the present facility half size where it is, or in a safer location, and bring them to capacity when that is done. It looks like a clear case for proactive replacement, and if there is reluctance without much cause, a public interest lawsuit or media campaign could tip the scales.

  6. mike k
    February 8, 2019 at 21:12

    The military stinks to high heaven.

  7. Andrew D. Thomas
    February 8, 2019 at 20:13

    Out of the $21 trillion the us spent and couldn’t account for over less than 20 years, you would think they could have done a full EPA impact report, found an alternative site, and replaced these antiquated tanks. Why not? The answer is in the economic impact of militarism on Hawaii. The military has put the water supply of these people in danger because it can. Screw the Hawaiians.

  8. Mark Thomason
    February 8, 2019 at 10:05

    Every so often, gas stations must pull out their old tanks and put in new ones.

    Red Hill is a lot of things, and the actual tanks (liners) is only a small part of it.

    It is said of new military ships that the steel is the cheapest part. That would be true of tanks too.

    Just put in new tank liners. It isn’t that hard, nor that expensive.

  9. Skip Scott
    February 8, 2019 at 07:56

    This story and the previous one just show one of the many bad side effects of our war machine. Time for peace. Time for a New Green Deal. Time for Americans to grow the f*&^ up!

    • Garrett Connelly
      February 8, 2019 at 12:30

      Went there but the actual viewing area is obscured so I didn’t actually read anything, interesting topic; Is it posted anywhere else?

Comments are closed.