The Red Hill community panel says the Navy is leaving questions unanswered

April 20 – Since the community meeting in March, several new documents have emerged that CRI members say raise serious questions. The absence of officials calls into question promises of transparency, they say.

Members of the Red Hill Community Representation Initiative are expressing frustration with federal officials who refused to attend a scheduled meeting for a second time.

Since the March community meeting, several new documents have emerged that CRI members say raise serious questions. The absence of officials calls into question promises of transparency, they say.

The CRI, which met Thursday, was formed as part of a federal consent order related to the Red Hill closure between the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and the military. It consists of a mix of local residents and activists, along with people directly affected by the Red Hill water crisis, which began in November 2021 when fuel from the Navy’s Red Hill fuel storage facility entered the Navy’s Oahu water system and polluted. serves 93,000 people.

Its creation arose from requests for community involvement in the depletion and closure process. The Red Hill facility sits just 100 feet above a critical aquifer that most of Oahu depends on for drinking water.

A federal judge recently made public a whistleblower complaint from former Red Hill fuel director Shannon Bencs alleging that the Navy contractors made numerous mistakes in inspecting and maintaining the Red Hill facility. The complaint also included allegations of multiple prior, undisclosed leaks of “forever chemicals” at the Red Hill plant prior to the November 2021 fuel incident.

And last week, the Pentagon’s inspector general released an audit of military fuel facilities concluding that a lack of oversight has placed the majority of them “at increased risk of fuel leaks and spills, which could endanger public health, the could harm natural resources and lead to mission failure.”

“How do we know that these incredibly toxic ‘forever chemicals’ have actually been cleaned up? Is there any risk to neighborhoods and schools in ‘Aiea and Moanalua, or wherever they may have taken contaminated materials?” said CRI member Walter Chun. “These are critical questions we must ask and the Navy must answer – for our safety and the safety of our children and future generations.”

Several of the contractors named in the whistleblower complaint have made millions, if not billions, of dollars from maintenance contracts in Hawaii. Despite all that was spent on maintaining the World War II-era facility, after the November 2021 incident, Navy officials recognized Red Hill and the pipelines connecting it to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam had fallen into deep disrepair.

It took a joint military task force of experts from every military branch nearly a year to repair and modernize the facility and pipelines so they were safe enough to remove the more than 30 million gallons of fuel from the tanks. Now the newly formed Navy Closure Task Force Red Fill has taken over and is removing the remaining sludge as it prepares to dismantle the pipelines and close the facility.

“If even half of these alleged facts are true, then Navy contractors have played a large part in the pattern of neglect that has led to this crisis,” said CRI member Melodie Aduja. “It is our understanding that some of these contractors continue to do work for the (Navy Closure Task Force). What are they responsible for now? Will independent experts be able to double-check their work? The Navy needs to stop hiding, so we can ask them these basic questions.”

An investigation of contracts for military fuel facilities in Hawaii by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in January 2022 found that the contractor that had benefited most from working on Navy fuel systems in Hawaii at the time was APTIM Federal Services LLC of Baton Rouge . La. – one of the five companies named in Bencs’ whistleblower complaint. According to publicly available records, the company and several subsidiaries received at least $106.5 million in contracts from the Navy between 2017 and 2021 for various maintenance, repair and modification work on fuel facilities and pipelines in Hawaii.

From the beginning, relations between the CRI and Navy officials have been tense. CRI members have accused Navy officials of dodging questions and lying during meetings. Navy officials have countered that CRI members acted disrespectfully and outside the scope of the consent decree. Navy officials have also emphasized that the federal consent order only requires them to attend two meetings per quarter — although senior officials at some meetings have expressed a willingness to meet more frequently.

Navy officials declined to attend a meeting in January, and in a statement to the Star-Advertiser, the Navy said it “has not stopped participating in the CRI and remains fully committed to meeting the intent of the consent order of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency dated 2023. regarding the Community Representation Initiative (CRI) Unfortunately, recent CRI actions have taken this initiative off course and fueled the need for a reset in January.

The Navy attended the February CRI meeting, but issued a press release prior to the March meeting claiming that “following the efforts of (Navy) and DLA to consult with the EPA and the elected community representatives, the CRI meeting took place on February 15 did not meet the (Navy) and DLA’s continued commitment to interact with stakeholders in a safe and respectful forum for sharing information.

At the March meeting, the EPA called on Navy and CRI members to enter into mediation with an “EPA-arranged mediator” at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. The CRI has expressed skepticism about the proposal, and members have rejected requests from Navy officials for private meetings, pushing so far to keep the proceedings public.

“This is hard work – for all of us,” CRI President Marti Townsend said in a statement. “But it is work we must do together – to give the public the transparency we deserve, to understand and heal the harm that has been done, and to protect the health and safety of our community and our future generations. ”