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US Navy appeals Hawaii order to drain military fuel tanks

HONOLULU (AP) — Attorneys for the U.S. Navy on Wednesday appealed Hawaii’s order that it drain massive tanks that store fuel in the hills above Pearl Harbor, saying the state wrongly concluded the tanks posed an imminent threat that requires immediate action.

A complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Honolulu asks a judge to stop the order.

The motion said the Navy hopes to resolve its differences with Hawaii through negotiation but filed a complaint anyway because of time restrictions under Hawaii law.

Attorneys for the Navy filed a similar motion in state court in case a federal judge decided not to act on its complaint, the filing said.

Hawaii last month ordered the Navy to drain its tanks at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility after fuel leaked from the complex into a drinking water well and contaminated tap water at Pearl Harbor homes and offices.

Thousands of people have been treated for physical ailments and 4,000 military families are staying in hotels because of the leak.

The state Department of Health said it looked forward to taking its “fight to court.”

“This appeal proves undeniably the Navy is unwilling to do what’s right to protect the people of Hawaii and its own service members,” Kathleen Ho, Hawaii’s deputy director of environmental health, said in a statement.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige issued his emergency order on Dec. 6. It said the Navy wouldn’t be allowed to use the tanks again until it showed it could do so safely.

The Navy appealed, prompting the state Department of Health to hold a hearing to consider the challenge. The department’s deputy director then issued a final order on Jan. 3.

The Navy said last month it would comply with the final order but on Monday Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said it would appeal. Doing so would give the military time “to make evidence-based and transparent decisions,” she said in a statement.

Wednesday’s complaint said the Nov. 20 leak of fuel into the Navy’s drinking water system was an emergency. It outlined steps the Navy took to address this emergency, including providing bottled water, laundry service and alternative housing to those affected.

But it argued that the state failed to present evidence that the Red Hill facility itself presented an “imminent peril.”

It said the Department of Health failed to give the Navy sufficient opportunity to present evidence and argue whether such imminent peril exists.

There would be plenty of time for the Navy to negotiate with the state about the long-term fate of the facility after it removes fuel from the tanks, said David Henkin, an attorney for Earthjustice. The group is representing the Sierra Club of Hawaii, which intervened in the case as an interested party.

“It is now time for the Navy to stop fighting the emergency order, which seeks to remove the existential threat that the Red Hill facility poses to Oahu’s people,” Henkin said. “If the Navy won’t voluntarily defuel the Red Hill tanks, we will vigorously defend the emergency order in court.”

Henkin said he would also fight to keep the case in state courts that have the authority to interpret Hawaii law.

Separately, the state Department of Health said it received documents from the Navy submitted to comply with the emergency order. The documents included a plan by an independent third party to assess Red Hill operations for the safe defueling of the tanks. The third party, an engineering firm, will also study design and operational deficiencies and recommended changes to correct those problems.

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