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EPA to eye Hawaii fuel tank operations after water tainted

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s top official says an upcoming inspection of a Navy fuel tank facility that leaked petroleum into Pearl Harbor’s tap water will look at whether the tank farm was properly operated

HONOLULU — The top official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday an upcoming inspection of a Navy fuel tank facility that leaked petroleum into Pearl Harbor’s tap water will look at whether the tank farm was properly operated.

“We’re going to … really look very closely at whether or not the facility has operated within the guidelines of the law. And if it hasn’t, then we will have to make some corrections there,” Michael S. Regan, the EPA’s administrator, told reporters at a news conference.

Regan was in Hawaii for a two-day visit to see the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility and meet officials about the water contamination crisis.

The EPA’s inspection of the Red Hill tank facility is scheduled to begin next week.

“At the end of the day, no family should have to question the quality of their drinking water,” Regan said.

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Hawaii’s Department of Health has ordered the Navy to drain fuel from the tanks, which were built nearly 80 years ago into the side of a mountain to protect them from enemy attack. The Navy has appealed that order to give it time to develop alternative solutions for storing the fuel. It has also hired a firm to help it carry it out the defueling order.

Martha Guzman, the agency’s regional administrator, indicated she could understand those who blame the EPA for the crisis because its regulatory work didn’t prevent it from happening.

“Anyone who has been impacted by this has all validity to feel that way, first and foremost,” Guzman said.

But she said the EPA had been monitoring the groundwater in the aquifer for fuel contamination while the current crisis was precipitated by fuel leaking directly into the Navy’s Red Hill well from a drain that officials didn’t even know existed.

“This incident was not forecasted. The scenario of direct oil into the shaft is nothing we could have ever imagined at that time,” she said. “This is had a level of direct contamination, which was not anticipated.”

Nearly 6,000 people, mostly those living in military housing at or near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, got sick late last year after petroleum-laced water came pouring out of their taps. People sought treatment for nausea, headaches, rashes and other ailments.

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Thousands of people have been living in hotels while the Navy tries to clear petroleum out of the water system’s pipes.

The Navy isn’t sure what caused the contamination but it has been investigating a theory that jet fuel spilled when a pipe ruptured in May and got into a fire suppression system drain line. It believes fuel then may have leaked from this drain line into the Navy drinking water well. It suspects oil-contaminated water was then pumped from this well into the Navy’s water system.

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