Thousands Poisoned at Pearl Harbor After Multiple Errors Made at U.S. Navy Refueling Facility: Report

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The 2021 jet fuel leak into Pearl Harbor’s water supply system was caused by human error, miscommunication and management lapses. The Department of the Navy investigative report was released by the service Thursday.

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The Navy report explained how nearly 20,000 gallons of JP5 contaminated the Hawaii naval base drinking water,  poisoning thousands of sailors and their families.

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Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility was constructed in the 1940s and sits atop the base’s drinking water supply. Red Hill operators improperly executed a fuel transfer procedure on May 6, 2021, resulting in two pipeline joint ruptures and a subsequent spill of JP5 jet fuel inside a lower access tunnel near two tanks, according to the report.

The deputy fuels director called the [Pearl Harbor Fleet Logistics Center] Commanding Officer and notified him of the spill, investigators said. The deputy fuels director’s initial report included his assessment that the spill was contained and no fuel was released to the environment, they added.

Up the chain of command, officers were informed that no fuel was released to the environment. Initial estimates pegged the amount of leaked fuel at around 1,000 gallons. That estimate was later raised to around 1,600 gallons, of which they believed all but about 40 gallons had been recovered. Thus, no sense of urgency was attached to the reports filed about the incident.

“CNRH [Commander, Navy Region Hawaii] first learned of the fuel spill from an e-mail from the Hawaii News Now television station,” explained Navy investigators.

Most of the fuel that leaked after May 6, 2021, was due to an improperly conducted fuel transfer spilled into a fire suppression line. That fuel reportedly remained there for six months, causing the line to sag. A cart rammed into this sagging line on Nov. 20, releasing 20,000 gallons of fuel, according to a Washington Post report.

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Officials responding to the leak report showed up without needed equipment because the damaged line was believed to be empty of fuel, which was not the case. On top of the operating errors by sailors conducting the fuel transfer and then the evaluation and cleanup, assumptions and communication failures compounded the errors.

“Although known at the time, the [Naval Petroleum Office] Deputy [Officer in Charge] did not include in his report the fact that the FMD inventory ledger from May 6 indicated a fuel loss of approximately 20,000 gallons
because he did not deem it relevant,” declared investigators in the Navy’s report.

Sailors and their dependents began reporting symptoms that were linked to fuel contaminating their drinking water. Command authorities moved almost 6,000 individuals out of base housing and temporarily assigned them lodging in area motels until water quality was restored.

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro informed base members March 7 that the Navy would defuel and permanently close the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility shortly before base water tested safe.

“The Department of Health for the State of Hawaii announced on 19 March 2022 that safe drinking water had been restored to all homes,” relieved Naval officers announced.

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