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Space Force head promises to rebuild trust after Maui fuel spill

A close up view of US Space Force Senior Enlisted Advisor CMSgt Roger Towberman uniform Thursday, May 15, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

The Space Force’s top officer in Hawaii apologized Monday for a diesel fuel spill at the service’s Maui Space Surveillance Complex at the summit of Haleakala.

The Space Force’s top officer in Hawaii apologized Monday for a diesel fuel spill at the service’s Maui Space Surveillance Complex at the summit of Haleakala.

“We have a solemn responsibility to protect this sacred ground upon which we have the privilege to operate, and it is a privilege, not a right, ” said Brig. Gen. Anthony Mastalir, commander of U.S. Space Forces Indo-Pacific, during a news conference at the facility. “You expect more from us, and last week we let you down. And for that I am truly sorry.”

On the night of Jan. 29, diesel fuel began to leak when a pump for an on-site backup generator failed to shut off and continued until maintenance personnel discovered the pump was still on and shut it off around 8 a.m. the next day. The Space Force estimates about 700 gallons spilled in the incident.

Officials think a power surge caused damage to a regulation float, causing the generator to malfunction and take on excess fuel. Mastalir explained that the float rests on top of the fuel similarly to the float in a toilet in a residential home. When the fuel drops to a certain level, the float is designed to call for more fuel, and then a transfer pump moves fuel from a storage tank into the generator’s main tank as the fuel in that main tank rises. The float is designed to then send a signal to the transfer pump to turn off.

“If for some reason that pump does not turn that off, and the float continues to rise, it is designed to then send an alarm so that we have notified individuals that there’s a potential overflow situation, ” Mastalir said. “This float failed in a way that none of those signals were sent. So the transfer pump continued to bring fuel from the storage tank into the generator’s main tank, and then overnight, began to overflow and seep down onto the sides of the concrete pad.”

He said that the incident is still under investigation. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials are scheduled to conduct their own inspection of the site today. Mastalir said the Space Force already is looking at potential modifications and upgrades to prevent any future spills as cleanup operations continue.

“We are focused on thorough and complete remediation here at Haleakala, ” Mastalir said. “However, industry-standard reme ­diation processes and protocols are not sufficient for this sacred ground. We have to go above and beyond what would otherwise be deemed acceptable, and that is what we are going to do … (and ) will work every day throughout this process and thereafter to rebuild the public trust.”

Mastalir said the generator is still in use but that it now only allows fuel to be fed manually under the supervision of a person watching the system.

The spill comes at a time when the relationship between the military and many Hawaii residents has become strained in the wake of a series of fuel and chemical spills. In November 2021, fuel from the underground Red Hill fuel storage facility contaminated the Navy’s Oahu water system, which serves 93, 000. The World War II-era fuel farm sits just 100 feet above a critical aquifer that most of Honolulu relies on for clean water and holds roughly 104 million gallons of fuel.

The Navy is working to defuel the tanks, a process slated to be complete by summer of 2024, but a recent spill of toxic firefighting retardant at the Red Hill facility in November has raised fresh questions about the military’s handling of hazardous materials in Hawaii.

Mastalir is new in Hawaii. He arrived in 2022 to serve as Space Force’s first regional commander for the Indo-Pacific, leading a small group of fewer than 100 highly specialized troops who work to ensure that service members from other branches have ready access to satellite systems and communications to support their own operations.

Space is increasingly a concern for military commanders. When Mastalir officially took command in November, Space Force commandant Gen. Chance Saltzman said that in the event of a potential conflict with China, “we find ourselves competing against a thinking adversary who continues to field counter-space systems as well as their own exquisite space-based support systems along with their increasingly capable terrestrial force.”


(c) 2023 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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