PFAS Firefighting Foam Spills at Notorious Red Hill Naval Facility in Hawaii

Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks tours Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in 2021
Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks tours Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility with senior Naval leadership on Oahu, Hawaii on Dec. 14, 2021. DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Brittany A. Chase
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By Jessica Corbett

Hawaiian state and U.S. Naval officials confirmed Tuesday that firefighting foam containing “forever chemicals” leaked at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Honolulu, requiring cleanup efforts and increased monitoring of soil and water.

Commonly called forever chemicals because they persist in the human body and environment for long periods, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been tied to a variety of health problems. They are used in not only some firefighting foams but also cookware, food packaging, and water-resistant clothing and furniture — though there are growing calls to ban them.

A Navy statement said that approximately 1,100 gallons of aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) — which is used to battle fuel fires — spilled at the underground facility, but “given the size of the release and the distance from the nearest active water well, our initial assessment is that it is unlikely to affect the drinking water or the aquifer.

The facility is already nationally known for a 2021 fuel leak that contaminated drinking water and sickened hundreds of people — after which U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin determined it should be defueled and permanently closed.

The Navy said Tuesday that “the AFFF release is not related to the ongoing defueling effort” but the Joint Task Force-Red Hill — established by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to defuel the complex — is aware of the incident.

According to Honolulu Civil Beat:

During a media briefing, Navy officials said the leak occurred during a maintenance activity run by engineers and contractors that work with the Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command.

The aim of the exercise was to ensure the system works, according to Navy Adm. John Wade, but something went terribly wrong. During the incident, the entire contents of the AFFF storage tank — 1,100 gallons — were drained, Navy officials said. They said the foam was released via a system pipeline, but they did not specify whether it came out of a broken pipe or an open valve. The cause of the leak is under investigation, they said.

The leak was “contained” by 2:00 pm, the Navy said.

“Whatever happened, it is stopped,” Wade said.

A top official at the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH) confirmed in a Tuesday statement it is investigating and acknowledged concerns about additional water contamination.

“This is egregious,” said Kathleen Ho, deputy director of environmental health at DOH. “AFFF contains PFAS forever chemicals — groundwater contamination could be devastating to our aquifer.”

“While details are limited at this time, the Joint Task Force and Navy need to be transparent about how this happened,” Ho added. “Regulators will hold the Department of Defense accountable and will press the operator to take any and all appropriate corrective action throughout the defueling and decommissioning process.”

Civil Beat reported that Wade agreed the situation is “serious” and added that “after talking with Ms. Ho, I don’t disagree with what she said.”

The outlet also noted that “the Red Hill facility’s firefighting system has been troublesome for years and was even flagged as dangerous by federal worker safety inspectors earlier this year.”

Ann Wright, an Army veteran and former U.S. diplomat who co-authored the book Dissent: Voices of Conscience and wrote about Red Hill for Common Dreams earlier this year, called the spill “one more example of Navy’s incompetence.”

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.

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