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An investigation by the Pentagon’s Inspector General released this month found that military officials have failed to provide proper oversight of fuel facilities and that they are now “at an increased risk of fuel leaks and spills, which could endanger public health, harm natural resources, and lead to mission failure.”

The report was prompted by a spill of 19,000 gallons of jet fuel from the Navy’s underground Red Hill facility that in November 2021 made its way into and tainted the Navy’s Oahu water system, which serves 93,000 people. The Navy is now working to close the facility, which sits just 100 feet above a critical aquifer that most of Honolulu relies on for drinking water.

After years of insisting the Red Hill facility was both safe and critical to national security, in March 2022 the Pentagon announced that along with closing Red Hill it would seek a new “distributed” fueling model to support Pacific operations, with fuel stored at facilities and on tankers spread across the region.

The military has 591 Defense Fuel Support Points — which include both facilities and Navy vessels storing fuel — worldwide as of 2022, according to the Defense Logistics Agency. But the report said that “DLA officials did not consistently manage or provide oversight of the DFSPs in accordance with (Department of Defense) policies.”

The DLA is required to monitor the facilities and to conduct “staff assistance visits” at these sites at least once every three years as part of the military’s Sustainment, Restoration, and Modernization — or SRM — program. But the report found that DLA officials “did not perform or did not provide evidence that they performed” required visits at 540 — or more than 91% — of the sites.

The report also found that there were 172 fuel spills at DFSPs through fiscal years 2020 to 2022 and that DLA officials “did not perform or provide evidence that they performed SAVs at 87 percent of the DFSPs that reported those spills.”

According to the investigation, the DLA reported that 101 of the spills were due to equipment failure, including the largest spill of 136,000 gallons. An additional 31 were attributed to human error, and the remaining 40 had the cause listed as “unknown.”

Investigators wrote that “without required oversight under the SRM program, DLA Energy cannot be assured that DFSPs are identifying, prioritizing, and performing SRM projects to address life, health, and safety concerns, security and environmental deficiencies, and risk of mission failure. These deficiencies increase the risk of leaks and spills.”

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, who chairs the Senate Armed Forces Committee’s Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support, said in a statement, “The Red Hill crisis showed all too clearly the dire consequences of DOD’s failure to adequately oversee, maintain, and modernize fuel depots. Our military is only as strong as the critical infrastructure it relies on.”

According to the investigation, DLA officials blamed pandemic travel restrictions for not conducting site visits through the fiscal year for 2022. But investigators wrote that “although DLA Energy personnel attributed the failure to meet the 3-year SAV requirement to the pandemic, we determined that the DLA did not establish a process to ensure that the DLA Energy regional offices performed required SAVs, and may not have had sufficient staff to perform SAVs at the required frequency.”

Investigators also wrote that “we determined that although DLA Energy personnel could not travel to conduct SAVs during the COVID-19 pandemic, DLA Energy did not develop or implement an alternative to in-person SAVs. DLA Energy personnel stated that they did not implement an alternative to in-person SAVs because they did not know how long the pandemic would last.”

Investigators laid out several proposals, including a call for the DLA to come up with an official alternative to physical site visits when travel isn’t possible or feasible, a staffing study to ensure fueling facilities have enough people and to address shortages if they don’t, as well as creating a formal process to ensure DLA regional offices are completing required visits.

“After Hotel Pier was leaking fuel, undetected, for months, and after 19,000 gallons of fuel went missing for over half a year from Red Hill — until thousands of people were poisoned — it is obvious that the DoD has a fuel inventory and leak prevention problem,” said Wayne Tanaka, director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii. “While the report makes clear that this problem is widespread — with nearly 200 known spills at military fuel facilities in just two years — there are no details to assure us how more site visits by DLA staff can somehow prevent the continued contamination of our islands, and anywhere else the military maintains its fuel supplies.”

“In so many ways Hawaii is, unfortunately, that canary in a coal mine when it comes to climate change, and fossil fuels. It would just be tragic if that lesson wasn’t heeded after the disaster here on Oahu,” said Jeff Mikulina, director of the Hawaii Climate Coalition. “Big picture, this just underscores the need to move away from fossil fuels for all purposes, even for defense.”

Though military officials had long insisted the Red Hill facility was safe, in truth the World War II-era fuel farm had over the years fallen into deep disrepair and required a wide variety of fixes and upgrades before the military could safely remove the more than 104 million gallons of fuel in its tanks. Repairs took nearly a year, but since their completion in 2023, the military removed most of the more than 104 million gallons in the Red Hill tanks and is currently working to remove residual sludge.

The military brought in chartered commercial tankers to ferry fuel to West Oahu facilities run by Island Energy Services at Campbell Industrial Park, to a fuel storage point in San Diego, a fuel storage point in the Philippines at Subic Bay and another fuel storage point in Singapore.

The Pentagon has said the new strategy model provides more flexibility and more “resilient” supply lines in the event of a conflict or crisis in the Pacific. But the redistribution wasn’t without controversy in the region.

On Jan. 10, as the last of the chartered tankers was carrying fuel to Subic Bay, Philippine Sen. Imee Marcos — elder sister of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. — released a statement accusing the U.S. and Philippine governments of a lack of transparency regarding the shipment. A day later the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority told Philippine Media that the tanker had canceled its request to enter Subic Bay.

A U.S. military spokesman later told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that “delivery of fuel shipped from Red Hill to Subic Bay was delayed due to country diplomatic clearance. On Friday, January 19th, diplomatic clearance was received and the ship offloaded fuel in Subic Bay before returning to sea.” But the shipment drew scattered protests in the Philippines from activists raising concern about environmental and health concerns, as well as how that fuel would ultimately be used.

“I have repeatedly pressed leaders across the services on the need to ensure the safety and reliability of fueling infrastructure in Hawaii and across the globe,” said Hirono. “It is clear from this report that more needs to be done, especially as we move to a more distributed fuel posture in the Pacific. The DOD needs to put forward a comprehensive plan to rectify this issue in order to ensure the readiness of our troops and the health and safety of surrounding communities.”

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ON THE NET:

>> Read the report at 808ne.ws/4aB0d4F.

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