The latest sewage spill comes while the Navy and the state have been at loggerheads over an $8.7 million fine issued by DOH in September over repeated spills and maintenance problems with the Navy’s wastewater system.
Approximately 3, 500 gallons of untreated wastewater spilled into Pearl Harbor on Friday morning when an air-release valve in a Navy distribution line apparently failed.
The sewage leak began around 9 a.m. near the Lake Erie Street /Hickam Bike Path when about 5, 000 gallons of the untreated wastewater spilled from the distribution line, although approximately 1, 500 gallons was recovered before it spilled into the harbor, according to a Navy news release.
Navy officials said the valve has since been secured and bypassed and the rest of the spill contained. The state Department of Health was notified of the incident, and the Navy Public Works Department’s environmental team will sample the water for bacteria levels, the officials said.
The latest sewage spill comes while the Navy and the state have been at loggerheads over an $8.7 million fine issued by DOH in September over repeated spills and maintenance problems with the Navy’s wastewater system. DOH did not respond to a request for comment.
State and federal regulators have for years been concerned about the Navy’s handling of wastewater on Oahu. Officials from the DOH’s Clean Water Branch tried to inspect the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam wastewater treatment plant in 2019 but reported they found it in such a state of disrepair that they were unable to safely complete the inspection.
State officials contacted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense about the situation. In follow-up inspections the EPA reported the plant was well exceeding its discharge limits for cadmium, zinc, oil and grease, pH and total waste toxicity under the federal Clean Water Act. Both EPA and Navy inspectors found the plant had cracked concrete tanks, warped and disconnected parts in its machinery and severely corroded equipment within the facility.
In June 2021 the Navy entered a Federal Facilities Compliance Agreement with the EPA requiring it to make a series of repairs and upgrades to the facility by the end of 2024, but problems have continued.
On Sept. 27 the DOH fined the Navy for Clean Water Act violations, citing 766 counts of discharging pollutants into the ocean between January 2020 and July 2022 ; 212 counts related to operation and maintenance failures ; and 17 counts of bypassing filters without authorization. DOH’s violation order says the Navy exceeded the limit every day in 2020 as well as 276 days in 2021 and 122 days this year.
Just two days after getting slapped with the fine, another wastewater spill of 1, 000 gallons poured into Pearl Harbor from a 12-inch wastewater line that broke. Utility workers secured the leak and installed a plug, but the Navy said the leaked wastewater was “unrecoverable.”
The Navy contested the fine in October, arguing it couldn’t legally pay because the state is barred from seeking punitive fines. Capt. Cameron Geertsema, commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Hawaii, sent the DOH a letter requesting a hearing to dispute the fine, writing that the Navy wants to “better understand your goals and incorporate those into a resolution that addresses recent incidents in a sound, environmentally compliant, cost effective, and timely manner.”
The Navy has faced increased public scrutiny of its environmental record in Hawaii since the 2021 contamination of its water system that serves 93, 000 people by fuel from its underground Red Hill fuel storage facility. The water crisis has affected military personnel and their families as well as civilians living in former military housing areas on the system.
The Pentagon initially rejected a state order to defuel Red Hill’s fuel tanks, which sit just 100 feet above a critical aquifer that provides most of Honolulu’s drinking water but has since agreed to shut down the facility. Efforts to defuel the tanks are expected to be complete in the summer of 2024.
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