HONOLULU — The U.S. Navy is contesting orders from Hawaii to suspend use of fuel tanks and drain them at a complex above an aquifer that supplies nearly 20 percent of Honolulu’s drinking water until certain conditions are met.
The Navy has already said it was suspending use of the massive World War II-era fuel storage complex near Pearl Harbor following days of complaints that tap water smells like fuel and has sickened some people.
But Hawaii’s state government order demands that the suspension remain in effect until independent evaluators can ensure that appropriate actions are taken to protect drinking water.
The state also wants the Navy to treat contaminated drinking water and remove fuel from the 20 massive underground storage tanks at the complex called the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.
Putting the storage facility out of use could affect operations at a critical time for the Navy, especially as tensions rise in the Pacific with China’s rhetoric about Taiwan ramping up over the past year, said Lyle Goldstein, a Pacific Ocean maritime security and director of Asia Engagement at Defense Priorities think tank.
The Hawaii Department of Health on Monday ordered the Navy to suspend operations at the fuel facility, citing the governor’s power to act if there is “imminent peril to human health and safety or the environment” caused by a leak or operation of an underground storage tank system.
The order came shortly after Navy officials said they already had suspended fuel complex operations. The state health department set a hearing for Tuesday afternoon, but it was postponed after the Navy informed state officials that it planned to contest the emergency order.
Navy officials on Tuesday did not respond to emails and phone messages seeking comment on why the order was being contested even though use of the fuel complex was already suspended.
“Hawaii’s well-being and the safety of our residents, including military families, must come first. We cannot have national security without ensuring public health and safety,” Gov. David Ige, a Democrat, said in a statement.
In announcing the shutdown of the complex that supplies fuel to U.S. military ships and planes that patrol the Pacific, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro on Monday did not say how long it would last but insisted that the cutoff’s impact on military operations would “have a very minimal effect, if any, at all right now.”