The secretary of the Navy has issued letters of censure to three admirals who were overseeing the service’s Red Hill fuel storage facility in Hawaii at the time of massive fuel spills that contaminated the surrounding military community’s water supply.
Carlos Del Toro censured three flag officers, who are all now retired from the service: Rear Adm. Peter Stamatopoulos, who oversaw Naval Supply Systems Command at the time; Rear Adm. John Korka, who led Navy Facilities Engineering Command; and Rear Adm. Timothy Kott, who was the commander of Navy Region Hawaii.
“Taking accountability is a step in restoring the trust in our relationship with the community,” Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said in a statement on the move released Thursday. “What happened was not acceptable, and the Department of the Navy will continue to take every action to identify and remedy this issue.”
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However, the overall effect of the move toward accountability was at least partially blunted now that all three former officers are retired. The water contamination caused by the Red Hill spill caused litigation over widespread health concerns and the decommissioning of the facility, both of which are still ongoing.
In his letter to Stamatopoulos, Del Toro faulted the admiral for failing to put out guidance on what training and qualifications personnel at Red Hill needed to have, which the secretary said led to an inadequate response to the November 2021 spill — the second incident involving leaked fuel.
“You also negligently approved an insufficient investigation of the 6 May 2021 fuel spill at Red Hill,” the letter added.
Korka was faulted for failing to make sure that the firefighting system in the facility met the required specifications.
A Navy investigation into the initial spill in May found that after the fuel escaped, it made its way into the fire suppression system line where it remained for months. However, since the pipes were made out of PVC — a kind of plastic not intended to carry fuel — they were part of the reason the fuel spilled out of the facility and into the drinking water.
It also led to worries that dangerous, cancer-causing compounds used in the firefighting materials, widely known as “forever chemicals,” also spilled into the water supply. The Hawaii State Department of Health later found that none of the chemicals had seeped into the drinking water.
“You failed to identify and mitigate against lack of oversight of contracting and installation of a critical system at Red Hill, which contributed to the fuel spill and subsequent contamination of the water distribution system,” Del Toro wrote.
Finally, Del Toro said Kott, the commander of Navy Region Hawaii at the time, failed to execute fuel spill drills and exercises, which contributed to the inadequate response to the November fuel spill that was the primary cause of the drinking water contamination.
Del Toro also said Kott was negligent in how he oversaw the initial response to the spill, noting that he didn’t adequately deploy an environmental management team or send a Navy coordinator to the scene of the spill for over a day.
Finally, the Navy secretary also faulted Kott for not telling the public that he had ordered the Red Hill well shut off after the spill until four days later.
“The delay in reporting negatively impacted public trust and gave some members of the public the impression that the Navy was not transparent in their reporting,” Del Toro added.
The move is just the latest in a string of apologies and accountability measures that the Navy has had to take in the wake of the massive fuel spill that not only contaminated the water for thousands of military and civilian families, but led to many reports of illness, a lawsuit and a raft of apologies from officials.
The facility has also been closed down and is being drained of fuel.
The Navy’s press release on the three censures also noted that it issued less serious Letters of Instruction to Rear Adm. Dean VanderLey and Rear Adm. Robert Chadwick. VanderLey was Korka’s successor while Chadwick preceded Kott as commander of Navy Region Hawaii. Both admirals have also since retired.
Hawaii Public Radio also reported that, according to a Navy spokesman, Del Toro revoked the personal military decorations that the five admirals received as end-of-tour awards.
The Navy has previously drawn fire for giving leaders associated with the crisis end-of-tour medals that, in at least one case, lauded them for their work after the spill.
In July 2022, Military.com reported that Capt. Erik Spitzer, the commanding officer who led Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, was awarded the Defense Department’s second-highest non-combat service award despite mistakenly telling residents to drink the tainted water.
Spitzer, who received his award aboard the historic battleship USS Missouri, was congratulated for “his response to the Red Hill water contamination incident,” which “resulted in the expeditious restoration of clean water throughout the community,” according to the award’s citation.
The press release also noted that the Navy issued Non-Punitive Letters of Censure to seven Navy captains, “three of whom are pending a Board of Inquiry to decide if they may continue their naval service,” as well as Letters of Instruction to one commander and one lieutenant commander.
— Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on X at @ktoropin.
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