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CNO, SECNAV, and Deputy Commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet Speak During Press Conference in Hawaii

by Chief of Naval Operations Public Affairs
07 December 2021
The Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Carlos Del Toro, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Mike Gilday, and Deputy Commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet Rear Adm. Blake Converse spoke during a press conference in Hawaii on Dec. 6, 2021.

MODERATOR:  All right, everybody.  Thanks so much for coming today.  Obviously, on the record.  We’ll start with a brief opening statement from the secretary of the Navy, Carlos Del Toro, and then Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday will make a few opening comments.

We’re going to try and get around to everybody, so I’ll do my best to hit everybody.  We have about 40 minutes, so one question and one follow-up max, please.  And we’ll go ahead and start.

So, Mr. Secretary, over to you, sir.

SECRETARY CARLOS DEL TORO:  Well, good afternoon, everyone.  Thank you for the opportunity to come here before you today and the people of Hawaii.

I’d like to first start off by apologizing to all of our servicemembers, our DOD civilians, our contractors, our family members, and the people of Hawaii who have been affected by this horrible, horrible tragedy.  Your health and well-being is our top priority, both while we are here on the island and while I am back in Washington, D.C.

For the past two days, the chief of naval operations and I have met and actively listened to several groups of people who are affected by this crisis, and we are taking the necessary actions to make all resources available to helping them in every possible way.  I understand how disruptive this has been to your daily lives, and I am committed to finding and fixing the root cause of this issue.

The CNO and I have visited several areas, to include the Red Hill storage facility, to learn about possible causes and determine ways to prevent this from ever happening again.  While we are getting closer to determining the root cause of this situation, there is an ongoing investigation that is led by U.S. Pacific Fleet into the cause of the incident.  Once that investigation is complete, we will review those findings and adjust our operating procedures as necessary.  This will allow us to implement new safety actions before resuming operations.

Behind the health of those affected, which is my principal priority, our second priority is to fix the problem and getting you back to a new normal with regard to the operation of Red Hill, one where you do not have to worry about this ever happening again.  Each of you should always feel confident that you and your families are drinking safe and clean water.

I know there are concerns that we have not been transparent with the results of our testing and our procedures.  You have my commitment and promise that the information that we provide is the most accurate information that we have available.

Lastly, I want to sincerely thank the governor of Hawaii, the Hawaii congressional delegation, the Hawaii Department of Health, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, and other civilian agencies that we have been working with to solve this issue.  I’m very pleased to say that in the couple of days that I’ve been here there’s been tremendous collaboration amongst these agencies and public officials.  And I’m deeply to their advice, their counsel, and their assistance.  We simply cannot do it alone, and this will require continued collaboration with them as well.

Now I’d like to turn it over to the chief of naval operations, Admiral Gilday, for his opening comments.  Thank you.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL M. GILDAY:  Mr. Secretary, thank you.  And thank you for joining us this afternoon.  It’s really important that we have this engagement and this discussion.

The secretary and I are also joined here in Hawaii by our senior enlisted in the United States Navy, the master chief petty officer of the Navy, Master Chief Smith, who’s sitting in the room as well.  The three of us are in Hawaii for one single reason, and that is to listen to those that have been affected and to understand what the root cause of the problem is.

In the past 24 to 36 hours, we’ve been exposed to a lot but nothing more important than meeting with those families that have been affected.  And I think that’s allowed us, as the secretary has mentioned, to really become focused on three priorities which are all grounded upon restoring trust with not only our families but also with the local community, the government, and the congressional delegation that represents this fine state.

The first priority is to take care of everybody that’s been affected by this – by this situation.  And so that includes medical care.  That includes food and it includes water.  It also includes alternative housing if that’s required.

The second is – as the secretary mentioned, is to restore water service as quickly as we can.  But the key point here is that getting it right is more important than doing it fast, because what we don’t want to do is to move people back into their homes, to restore service prematurely before we have the utmost confidence in that system, so that we’re not going through this again.

And so, to that important reason, it’s really critical that we do this in conjunction with and in partnership with both the Department of Health and the Board of Water Safety, both of whom have been extraordinary in reaching out to us and collaborating with us and giving us candid feedback on what we’re doing right and what we’re not doing right.  And we honestly welcome that.  We welcome that kind of – we welcome that kind of help.

The last thing, I’ll just emphasize something that the secretary said with respect to priority three, and that is getting this right for the long term.  We know that this is – this is not a get it done before Christmas of 2021 effort; this is a long-term effort that we need to get right – and as we just finished up a call with the congressional delegation for this state, that we need to make it right forever.  And so we are – we are committed to that.

And with that, we’re happy to take your questions.

MODERATOR:  All right.  Audrey from AP, we’ll start with you.

Q:  OK.  Sorry.  Could you tell us what the status is right now of the Red Hill fuel tanks?  Are you using them?  And, yeah, if you could let us know.

MODERATOR:  Do you want to address that, or?

SEC. DEL TORO:  Actually, Admiral Converse, why don’t you address that?

REAR ADMIRAL BLAKE CONVERSE:  So the Red Hill fuel tanks have not been operationally used since the 27th of November.  And so –

Q:  Could I ask one follow?

MODERATOR:  Sure.

Q:  What sort of effect will this have on the Navy’s operations in the Indo-Pacific and the U.S. – I don’t know if you can talk about the U.S. military’s operations there.

SEC. DEL TORO:  So, actually, it’ll have a very minimal effect, if any at all, right now.  I don’t want to get into topics or conversations with regards to how long we can continue to do this for national security reasons, but there’s really no minimum operation to our fleet’s activities or activities impacting the Air Force or the Army or the Marine Corps for any near term at all.

MODERATOR:  All right.  Star-Advertiser, we’ll come to you, Kevin.

Q:  OK.  I have a follow up on that in terms of readiness.  Maybe it has a minimal impact on that, but it does seem in the long term that the source of fuel that makes our ships and planes operate is making the troops who use them sick.  That seems to me like a readiness problem.  Would you agree with that?

SEC. DEL TORO:  Well, it’s not the fuel itself that’s making them sick; it’s the fuel in the water that’s making them sick.  And so the investigation and the activities that have been going on here now for the good part of a week, actually, is to determine exactly where the source of contamination is from and to put a stop to that source of contamination, and then to learn those lessons, change our operating procedures.  And that’s all part of the ongoing investigation that will be conducted.

ADM. GILDAY:  I’d just add that there’s three things we have to get right.  And this isn’t a balance, it’s about getting three things right.  And so one of them is safety of people, right?  The second is the safety of the environment.  And the third is national security.  Those are three things that – you know, as part of this effort, those are three main things that we’re focused on ensuring that we – that we protect.

MODERATOR:  All right.  We’ll come to HawaiiNewsNow, Mahealani Richardson.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, is there any consideration to permanently shut down the fuel tanks at Red Hill?

SEC. DEL TORO:  We look at all options and all options are on the table, certainly.  But we’re looking at some very serious options here in the very near future, before I depart the island of Oahu.  I still need some more time to meet with additional groups and talk to different folks and look at some additional facts before I make a determination of what steps I need to take here in the near term, in the next let’s just say 48 hours before I depart the island.

Q:  There’s been confusion amongst the families if all of the water at Hickam Base is safe to drink.  Is the water safe to drink and bathe in?  And would you drink it and bathe in it?

SEC. DEL TORO:  Admiral, would you care to address the issue of water across the entire base?

REAR ADM. CONVERSE:  So I apologize, first, for any confusion that there may be.  There is – this is a dynamic situation as we’ve identified the nature of the constituents, and then we’ve identified through all of the complaints that we’ve had and through extensive sampling both by us and the Department of Health from Hawaii where the concentration of contaminants are.  We’ve adjusted the guidance, as has the Department of Health, and we recently – just last night – put out revised guidance that was conducted in – with consultation from each of the services’ medical centers – the Army – local Army surgeons, the local Air Force medical community, the local Coast Guard, the Navy, and the Department of Health toxicologist.  And that guidance provides clear understanding for folks that read that of what your – what your risks are and what you can do with the water if you’re in an area that’s affected – and there’s a map online that provides you that indication – and if you’re in an area that’s unaffected.

So we just recently put that guidance out.  It was developed in consultation with the entire community that lives here among the medical folks that deal with that and in consultation with the Department of Health.

MODERATOR:  All right.  Wyatt Olson, I’ll come to you next, from Stripes.

Q:  Yeah.  Hi.  I’d like to burrow down a little bit on where you think this contamination came from into the well.  You said you’re looking into that.  Like, how will you do that?  How do you figure out where that – how do you trace that?  What are you – what are you doing to trace that?

SEC. DEL TORO:  We’ll follow the evidence, and that’s exactly what we will do.  You know, I believe the evidence will lead us to the root cause of what caused the contamination into the water supply.  And as you know, there were a series of events that took place in May and earlier in November, and the investigation, I believe, will – is doing everything it can to basically tie all of those pieces together to come to a conclusion as to where exactly the water supply was contaminated.

Would you like to add anything else?

REAR ADM. CONVERSE:  I think the testing is – so, to the secretary’s point, you really do have to follow the facts.  And science helps us here, right, with respect to the degree of fidelity you can get from some of this testing to actually in a way fingerprint that fuel and potentially where it came from.  And so those are the kinds of things that we’re working through very closely with the Department of Health, with Bureau of Water Supply, who have – actually have some experience in isolating and then containing contaminants, and that’s how we’re stepping through this.  But we’re making sure that it’s very methodical, that it’s very facts- and science-based as we do it.

MODERATOR:  All right.  We’ll come to Nicole Tam with KITV.

Q:  I have two questions.

The first is both of you gentlemen mentioned that long-term plan is to, of course, improve the situation and make sure it doesn’t happen again.  While that sounds great, logistically how does that look like?  What kind of consideration is part of the plan?  Are you adding resources?  What is the plan?

SEC. DEL TORO:  Yeah.  There’s a lot of all of the above, actually.  We’re not just looking at the long-term plan; we’re looking at the steps that need to be taken today, the steps that need to be taken in the next few days, the next few weeks, and then of course the longer, more capital investment-intense investments that need to be made in Red Hill to bring it up to a higher level of proficiency.

You know, I – in my own thoughts, I do believe that we should operate Red Hill as if it was one of our nuclear-powered submarines or one of our nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, which is by the way why we have a nuclear powered-qualified admiral here who’s overseeing the operation.  But there are investments that – longer-term investments that also need to be made and studies that need to be looked at, as well, too.

Chief, would you mind – Admiral, would you mind –

Q:  What are the steps?

SEC. DEL TORO:  Yeah.  Would you mind expanding upon that and the steps specifically?

ADM. GILDAY:  So I think – to expand on what the secretary said, I think first and foremost taking a look at – taking a look at Red Hill.  And so taking a deeper look at both the material condition of Red Hill as well as taking a look at the people piece of it, right – the certification and the training of the individuals that run that facility day in and day out.

We think – we’re coming to the conclusion that the investigation that’s ongoing is going to give us some good insights, but perhaps we’re also considering other alternatives with respect – as an example, to take a look at perhaps an independent study of that as well.  And as you all know, there have been many studies that have been undertaken on Red Hill – fueling system, the water system – and we are also taking a closer look at them, as well, to inform us on next steps.

Q:  And then my second question was that there were reports that the Navy knew about water contamination earlier this year, in June.  Can you clarify that timeline?  Who knew it and what did the do with that information?

REAR ADM. CONVERSE:  I can address that, sir.

So there were indications that there were total hydrocarbons in the groundwater at monitoring wells in the vicinity of the Red Hill shaft.  And we have a series of monitor wells around the Red Hill complex that allows us early detection of hydrocarbons, and if we defect those then we make decisions on what the risk is to the water in the aquifer based on that.  We did detect elevated hydrocarbons for two weeks at one point and then another two weeks at another point –

Q:  In June?

REAR ADM. CONVERSE:  – in the June-July-August timeframe.  In each of those cases, as soon as we got those results back from the independent lab, we notified the Department of Health in Hawaii and we consulted with them, and we increased monitoring in those monitor wells at their direction.  And in both of those cases, over time that – those hydrocarbon levels decreased back to non-detectable levels.

Now, recognize these monitor wells are not the same as the well that we’re drawing the water, the Red Hill shaft well.

ADM. GILDAY:  Can I just add one thing?  I think an important point there is the admiral used the word “we.”  He was really talking about the Navy and the Department of Health, right?  And so the Department of Health, in that oversight role, they need to – they need to take a look at those test results which we share with them as soon as possible, and then they really have the – have a determining role on next steps.

Q:  I know I’m breaking the rules, but just to follow up, so why was the public not informed in that period about that elevated hydrocarbon level?

REAR ADM. CONVERSE:  Those elevated hydrocarbons were not in the water in the aquifer that was being pumped; that was in the monitor wells, which are measuring the groundwater in the vicinity of the Red Hill complex.

Q:  So no consumption?

REAR ADM. CONVERSE:  Not based on the monitoring that we’ve conducted at that time.

Q:  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  All right.  We’ll come to –

SEC. DEL TORO:  It’s fair to say – no, I just want to add one thing.  I think – correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s fair to say that there is additional testing that’s done in the wells where the water is being pumped out of for drinking water.

REAR ADM. CONVERSE:  Absolutely.

SEC. DEL TORO:  And those were – I assume those were within limits.

REAR ADM. CONVERSE:  Sir, there’s testing that’s done periodically in each of the wells that we pump our water from, as well, and those tests are done and are monitored and reviewed by the regulatory authority.  And we submit those samples, as we did these, to the Department of Health.

MODERATOR:  All right.  We’ll come to HPR next.

Q:  Just want to get back to the issue of transparency.  Everything we’ve heard from families, from state officials, Board of Water Supply, there’s a lack of transparency.  For instance, they were not notified – Board of Water Supply was not notified when you shut down drawing from the Red Hill well.  So I just want to ask, why?  Why is this lack of transparency going on?  Why is the state Department of Health having to write you a letter over the weekend saying we need this information, we need these documents we need this – these testing results because we’re not getting what we need?  Why is this going on?

SEC. DEL TORO:  So I can’t speak to the past, certainly, and I don’t doubt that there has been issues associated with perhaps the timing of when information is transferred across or anything like that.  And those issues are of deep concern to me because we are committed to be as transparent as possible.  There’s no question about that.  In fact, we’re putting all these samples that are being taken – we’ve sampled over 500, you know, individual samples.  And you know, as they become available, for example, they’re being posted to a website that the Department of Health can look at, the Hawaii Board of Water Supply can look at, or any individual citizen can actually go on and look at it.

So, you know, I don’t doubt that there are people that feel that we’re not being transparent, and I certainly wish I could address them individually as to why they felt that they’re not being transparent.  But what I do know is that for as long as I’ve been here there has been absolutely no lack of transparency.  We are communicating as much as we can and informing people as quickly as we can.

As you can imagine, when the Red Hill shaft was closed the immediate urgency was to actually get the water supply secured.  And you know, I was notified early the next day that, you know, it had been shut down.  And so there’s going to be, I think, a natural lag in terms of timing as to when things do occur, especially if they’re occurring late at night or early in the morning.

But I’m – we’re committed – completely committed to transparency.  We’re not hiding anything.  We’re sharing it with anybody who wants to take a look at it.  And if you have doubts about it, send us an email, send us a letter and I’ll respond as quickly as possible, so.

ADM. GILDAY:  We’re trying to overcommunicate.

SEC. DEL TORO:  Yeah.  Yeah, we are.

Q:  So in terms of rebuilding trust in the Navy, we’ve heard comments from Congressman Case, who says the trust in the Navy has been compromised by this issue.  Anything that you say now is likely to be taken with a grain of salt.  How do you rebuild that trust with the public, with your families, with the public in general that you are accomplishing what you say you are?

SEC. DEL TORO:  Yeah.  I think we build it one day at a time, one individual at a time, one situation at a time, by always doing the right thing.  That’s the only way that we can do it.  To say otherwise would be foolish.

So we are committed to rebuilding this trust.  We’re doing everything we can to try to fix the problem and to take care of our people in every possible way.  And the resources of the entire Department of the Navy, and the Department of Defense for that fact, are being made available to take care of our people, fix the water supply, and get back on track.

ADM. GILDAY:  It needs to be about less say and more do.

SEC. DEL TORO:  Yeah.

ADM. GILDAY:  And quite honestly, we appreciate the spotlight.  It makes us better in that regard with respect to holding us honest to our – to our assertion that we – that we aspire to be more transparent.

So we need to do more sessions like this.  We need to do more sessions like this together with the local government and those – right, side by side, so that – so that we can – so that we can basically open the books to everything.

MODERATOR:  All right.  We’ll come to KHON next.

Q:  Well, a couple of questions.

Mr. Secretary, you had a meeting with the governor, I believe?

SEC. DEL TORO:  I did.  Yes, sir, today around noontime.

Q:  I guess, what could you tell us there?  Was there satisfaction on both sides?  And what was discussed as far as moving forward?

SEC. DEL TORO:  I don’t want to speak for the governor, but I believe so.  I think it was a very positive meeting.  I started off the meeting by apologizing to the governor and the impact that this situation has had on the people of Hawaii, just like I did with each and every one of you here today.  I explained the situation as to what was occurring.  I explained the steps that we, the Department of the Navy and the Department of Defense, are taking to take care of our people, to try to fix the problem, and to get us to a better place.  He seemed very satisfied with those answers.  And of course, you know, we’re going to continue to engage with the governor and the congressional delegation.  This afternoon I’m meeting with members of the state legislator as well – legislators, as well, too.  So it’s our commitment.

I’ve only been secretary of the Navy for 16 weeks.  Four of those were completely consumed by Afghanistan.  But I’m here to try to help fix this problem.

Q:  Admiral Gilday, you mentioned something about certification training as part of the steps as we move forward.  And so are you looking at the possibility that human error might have caused this situation?

ADM. GILDAY:  We’re leaving nothing on the table with respect to exhaustively looking at both materiel and personnel with respect to what got us to where we are.  Right now we’re not satisfied with where we are, clearly.  That’s why we launched another investigation.  That’s why we set up a taskforce to get after this, a joint taskforce that does include the Board of Water Supply and the Department of Health.  And so we have – we have work to do.

I would – to add on to what the secretary said about the meeting with the governor, I would just describe that discussion simply as candid and respectful.

MODERATOR:  All right.  We’ll come to Civil Beat and Christina for our last question.

Q:  All right.  So my first question is about monitoring.  It seems to me that the Navy either knew there was a problem with the water and didn’t tell people or, maybe worse, it didn’t know there was a problem.  Which is it?

REAR ADM. CONVERSE:  Which – what timeframe are you referring to?

Q:  In the days before people started reporting that they were sick, did any of you know that there was a problem and not inform people?  Or did you not know that it was coming?

REAR ADM. CONVERSE:  We did not know that there was a problem with the water in the days leading up.  And then our first indication were the complaints that we received from individuals in military residencies that are provided by our Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam military water distribution system.  And we started piecing together individual complaints.  Initially started as I have a chemical odor and taste in my water, and then as the day progressed and certainly more even on Monday we started getting indications that it was going from a chemical taste to more predominantly petroleum taste.  But even as we were seeing those first indications by the evening of Sunday, there was enough concern that we said, you know, that the closest water supply to this issue is the Red Hill shaft, and we have two water supplies normally on service so we can shift over and take that out of service to eliminate one possible cause of this.  And we did that.

Q:  And then –

SEC. DEL TORO:  So my understanding – correct me if I’m wrong – is that there was very little time, actually, between the time that we started receiving notifications, we did our investigatory work to the point where we shut the Red Hill shaft down, basically.

REAR ADM. CONVERSE:  Yes, sir.  That was done that evening and on Sunday was our first reported indications of contamination in the water supply.

Q:  Just to follow up on that, a second question about whether you believe you’re accountable to the state of Hawaii.  If Governor Ige tomorrow ordered de-fueling and a closure of the facility permanently, would you follow that order?

SEC. DEL TORO:  Well, I would definitely take it – in fact, there was a press release that was released by the governor and the delegation, and I’m taking that request and their suggestions very seriously.  And –

Q:  Is it a request, sir, or is it an order?  What do you consider it?

SEC. DEL TORO:  It’s not an order.  It’s a request that’s being made.  And we’re taking that very, very seriously, and we’re engaging in a series of conversations before I decide to take actions, like I said, in the next 24 to 48 hours.

MODERATOR:  All right, everybody.  Thank you so very much for your time today.

Q:  Sorry, can I ask a clarification question?  It’s important.  For November 27th

SEC. DEL TORO:  Yes, ma’am.

Q:  – that was the temporary suspension of the Red Hill fuel operations.

SEC. DEL TORO:  Yes, sir.

Q:  So, since the governor and the congressional team requested – made the request yesterday, does that mean they were not aware of the temporary suspension?  I’m confused on the timeline.

SEC. DEL TORO:  So we had ceased operations internally, essentially, regarding the transfer of fuel inside the Red Hill facility.  The request that the governor and the congressional delegation have made is that we cease operations at Red Hill on a more permanent basis, basically, until we continue, you know, to discover other facts.  And so there’s the investigation that we also need to figure out, as well, too, but I’ll be making decisions in the next 24 to 48 hours as to what my next step will be.  And I’m doing it because I want to talk to other organizations, including state legislators and other individuals here on the island of Oahu before I gather all the necessary information that I need to make so that I make the right decision and ensure that there is no secondary consequences that go unnoticed, as well, too.

MODERATOR:  All right, everybody.  Thank you so much for your time today.  We appreciate it.

Q:  Thank you.

SEC. DEL TORO:  Thank you.

Q:  Thank you, sir.

 

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