- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

HONOLULU (AP) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Hawaii state Department of Health on Thursday said they finalized a deal with the Navy to better prevent and detect leaks from 20 giant fuel storage tanks near Pearl Harbor.

The 70-year-old underground tanks are built into the side of a mountain atop a large aquifer critical to Honolulu’s water supply. The tanks provide fuel to U.S. military ships and aircraft, serving as a strategically important “gas stop” between the U.S. West Coast and the western Pacific.

The agencies began working on plans to address leaks after the Navy detected a leak of 27,000 gallons of fuel from one tank last year. Samples from nearby water-monitoring wells showed a spike in hydrocarbons, indicating possible fuel contamination.

The agreement calls for studying options for upgrading the tanks and then fixing them over the next 20 years. Tanks not upgraded will be taken out of service. The upgrades are expected to cost tens of millions of dollars.

Capt. Ken Epps said the Navy was looking at all options for upgrading the tanks, including potentially building second walls around each tank to capture leaks.

The Navy will also study possibly moving the tanks somewhere else, but he said the current site at Red Hill has many advantages. One is that it’s just 3 miles from Pearl Harbor.

The unique design of the facility means the tanks may supply fuel even amid a power outage. It’s also off the grid, securing it from a cyber-attack, Epps said.

The agencies said the Navy will install additional monitoring wells as soon as possible in response to public feedback. Honolulu Board of Water Supply officials will provide technical advice as the plan is implemented. A tentative agreement announced in June generated 140 comments from the public.

The EPA and state said they will approve all work performed by the Navy. The Navy may be fined if the work isn’t finished in accordance with the agreement.

The tanks, which are 250 feet tall and 100 feet in diameter, are the largest of their kind in the world. They were built in the 1940s.

State Sen. Laura Thielen, who represents Kailua and Waimanalo, said she was disappointed that Gov. David Ige’s administration “ignored” comments from the public seeking stronger protections for the aquifer. She said the agreement doesn’t require the Navy to double line the tanks, which is the best available technology.

“Moreover, the Navy is still being allowed more than 20 years to upgrade the 70-plus year old tanks, which means we continue to place one of our largest drinking water sources for Honolulu at risk for contamination with deadly chemicals for the next two decades,” said Thielen.

Ige said in a statement the administration listened carefully to the concerns of stakeholders. He said the deal will increase transparency and was the best mechanism for holding the Navy accountable.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii said the deal was a pragmatic way forward but it’s important to remain vigilant.

“I will continue to work with the Navy to ensure it has the resources it needs to continuously monitor and upgrade the facility so that it can continue to safely operate this strategic fuel depot in the Asia Pacific,” the Democrat said in a statement.

Ernest Lau, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply’s chief engineer, said his organization is concerned because the agreement gives the Navy up to 22 years to complete repairs or upgrades. The board had pushed for a shorter timeline. Lau said in a statement his agency would work with the other agencies as they moved forward with the agreement.

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