The November Navy fuel spill linked to the water contamination affecting thousands of military families in Hawaii was likely the result of “operator error,” a Navy official told lawmakers Tuesday.

The Navy will also comply with the Hawaii Department of Health’s emergency order to drain the fuel tanks at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, which is at the center of the water crisis, officials said.

The crisis has affected more than 9,000 Navy, Army and Air Force households at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and the Army’s Aliamanu Military Reservation and Red Hill communities, which are on the Navy water system, said Vice Adm. Yancy Lindsey, commander of Navy Installations Command.

“The Navy caused this problem. We own it, and we’re going to fix it,” said Rear Adm. Blake Converse, deputy commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet in his testimony before the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee. He said he is “keenly aware” of how this has affected military families and the people of Hawaii.

The “running tally is well over $250 million” for expenses incurred by the Navy as a result of the fuel spill, including lodging, water, laundry and shower facilities and other services for families, filtration systems and other costs related to the water system cleanup.

Officials are continuing their investigation into the cause of the Nov. 20 spill, but they’re also investigating whether that incident is linked to a May 6 fuel spill at the same location, which was also the result of operator error, Converse said.

In a hearing that lasted more than two hours, lawmakers pressed Navy officials about their initial response to residents’ complaints about fuel odors in their tap water, the assistance provided to those residents, the clean-up plans and their short- and long-term plans to address the root of the problem.

“There’s absolutely no doubt this is a very serious crisis. The impact on the families is extraordinary,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., chairman of the readiness panel. “It’s also a repeat of previous problems at Red Hill. I am determined that the Navy be held accountable for what has happened, and that they move expeditiously to resolve and avoid any future problems.” He said he intends for the issue to be taken up in the fiscal 2023 national defense policy legislation.

On Nov. 28, residents on the Navy’s water system began reporting concerns about oil products in their water. Although there were conflicting reports initially, the Navy confirmed Dec. 3 that petroleum had been found in the water. Hawaii’s Department of Health had immediately warned residents to stop drinking the water, and the Army had warned its residents in two communities served by the Navy’s water system to stop drinking the water.

Questioned about why the Navy was slower than the Army in warning its residents not to drink the water, Converse said that in response to the initial reports Nov. 28, the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam commander sent out teams to each one of those sites to check on it.

“Then, unfortunately at some point, with a small amount of information and not the full scope of an understanding of the impact, he determined that the majority of the distribution system was safe and that it was impacting only a small number of residents, and he made that statement that evening,” Converse said. “That was incorrect. He subsequently formally apologized for that assessment he made on the ground based on the limited amount of information he had.”

The next day, Converse was directed to assemble and lead a joint crisis action team, working directly with the Hawaii Department of Health and others. “That evening we put out public health guidance that was aligned with the Department of Health. … We were all working to get the information out.

“Were there miscues in communication? Yes. Was it impactful to our residents? Yes. … It was based on poor information and frankly, poor judgment,” Converse said.

Officials have set up processes for temporary lodging, including government contracted hotels; provided bottled water and bulk water; set up emergency assistance centers and hotlines; and provided laundry and shower facilities, said Lindsey, the head of Navy Installations Command. Medical providers have screened more than 5,900 patients with symptoms consistent with an acute environmental exposure event, Capt. Michael McGinnis, Pacific Fleet Surgeon, told lawmakers. Those symptoms have included nausea and vomiting, headaches, diarrhea, and skin or eye irritation. Once the patients were removed from the water, he said, the symptoms “rapidly resolved.”

The lawmakers, including Rep. Kaiali’i Kahele, D-Hawaii, pressed the officials about whether the Navy will comply with Hawaii’s emergency order to suspend operations and drain the massive fuel tanks, which the Navy has resisted. Converse confirmed that Navy will comply, stating that on Jan. 7, Adm. Samuel J. Paparo Jr., Pacific Fleet commander, signed a directive to start that process.

“I’m sure the people of Hawaii greatly appreciate the Navy’s commitment to fully comply with that order,” Kahele said, noting that the fuel tanks are above an aquifer that provides 77% of Oahu’s drinking water. “Let me be clear; clean drinking water is national security and cannot be compromised for anything,” he said.

The readiness panel will conduct a separate classified briefing with officials to discuss the facility’s role in national security and whether there are other options to replace the facility.

In the short term, the suspension of operations at Red Hill is having no impact on Navy operations in the Pacific, Converse said. Serbice officials are managing with local fuel supplies and alternate distribution methods.

The Navy is in the process of hiring a contractor to conduct an assessment of the bulk fuel facility in order to identify and fix the problem, Converse said. That will also set the conditions for the defueling in a safe manner. But lawmakers questioned whether the Navy would be able to meet Hawaii’s deadlines; the first deadline for an implementation plan is in early February.

“I appreciate everybody on the [witness] panel saying they won’t rest until Red Hill is cleaned up and families have safe water,” said Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla. “But it seems the approach is that that this is a one-off crisis, rather than a systemic problem. This may be an installation issue rather than an operator issue.”

Pressing the point, Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., asked why the fuel tanks would need to be drained if the problem were related to operator error.

“I do think this is part of a much larger systemic issue that we have seen, repeated occurrences over recent years in the Navy,” Luria said. ‘”I’m hopeful this will provide additional insight.”

Corrective actions need to be taken, she said, as investigation after investigation has pointed out shortfalls in operating procedures, compliance and training.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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