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Treatment of fuel spill area may begin in 2024

Aug 24, 2023

Apr 29, 2023

A sign limits entry to an area of the Haleakala summit where an estimated 700 gallons of diesel fuel spilled from a backup generator's tank at the Maui Space Surveillance Complex. The green container holding the generator and fuel tank is pictured in the background in this photo taken in February. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

KAHULUI — It could be a year before treatment begins on the contaminated soil and cinder from an approximate 700-gallon diesel fuel leak at the Maui Space Surveillance Complex atop Haleakala.

Phillip Wagenbach, 15th Space Surveillance Squadron Commander in the U.S. Space Force, said Wednesday night that the lengthy timeline for treatment is because "it's a very strict imperative that we do not remove soil from the summit due to the sacred nature of the space."

"In a less sacred place, the standard operation or procedure is to dig it all up and throw it in hazardous waste and that's absolutely not the right answer here," Wagenbach said to about 10 people at a community meeting at the University of Hawai’i Maui College campus in Kahului. "We are going to be very deliberate and very mindful about how we proceed."

Remediation efforts follow a Jan. 29 incident that involved an on-site backup generator pump failing to shut off. An estimated "worst-case scenario" 700 gallons of diesel fuel spilled onto a concrete pad and into the surrounding soil, he said.

Military authorities have said that a power surge amid a lightning storm was the likely cause of the mechanical issues – the fuel float failed in the "on" position, Wagenbach said. The generator control circuit board was also damaged.

Phillip Wagenbach, 15th Space Surveillance Squadron Commander in the U.S. Space Force, provides updates Wednesday night on a remediation plan for contaminated soils atop Haleakala following an oil spill in January. The community meeting was held at the University of Hawaii Maui College Campus in Kahului. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The Maui Space Surveillance Complex is host to small, medium, and large-aperture tracking optics, including the Department of Defense's largest optical telescope designed for tracking and imaging satellites, with visible and infrared sensors to collect data on near-Earth and deep-space objects.

Those in the audience on Wednesday voiced concerns that have been heard over the past few months from the community along with Native Hawaiian and environmental advocacy groups, such as the lack of stewardship of Haleakala and not already having a thorough contingency plan in place before the spill.

In late March, the first phase of soil excavation at the contaminated site atop Haleakala was completed. This included excavation of approximately 43 sacks of soil and cinder, estimated at 84,000 pounds, under and around a diesel fuel generator at the Maui Space Surveillance Complex. A liner was placed in the trenches to place clean back-fill soil gathered at a nearby site and prevent the remaining contaminated soil from spreading.

The removed soil is being safely stored at the summit until a "safe and effective" remediation plan is approved, Wagenbach said. Excavation averaged about 3 feet of depth of previously disturbed soil, due to slope and safety limitations. The bottom/end of the contaminated site was not found.

On Wednesday night, Wagenbach shared next steps.

Phase 2 involves taking core samples via small soil borings at depths of 40, 80 and 100 feet to determine the scope of contamination.

Work is anticipated to start in May and run through October. Laboratory results from that sampling will guide the Phase 3 remediation plan; the phase two report should be available by August.

The DOD contractor will be GSI Pacific, a small native Hawaiian-company based in Honolulu.

Phase 3 entails implementing the long-term treatment plan selected from Phase 2 efforts and data. Depending on the characteristics of the soil, options could include thermal treatment (heating), bioremediation (introducing natural microorganisms), or other treatments like air sparging, a representative from GSI Pacific said Wednesday.

There may be an opportunity to treat the soil in place, rather than removing the generator's platform and taking intrusive measures like more excavation, Wagenbach said.

Remediation work is expected to begin in the summer of 2024, but the timeline is dependent on the Phase 2 analysis, which could take a couple months, and the methods used.

More information will be shared as it becomes available.

"This plan takes into consideration not only the legal requirements, but also the cultural imperatives," Wagenback said. "We want to ensure that we fully cultivate the trust of the public, the trust of the people that also care about the mountain."

Certified archeologists, cultural practitioners, the Hawaii Department of Health, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, the National Park Services and other agencies will be overseeing the project.

"We’re here to make sure this is done correctly and to everyone's satisfaction," Wagenbach noted.

After hearing the presentation, Jocelyn Costa of the Aha Moku organization said that she's still concerned that community voices aren't being heard before plans and decisions are made, as well as the risks of long term oil saturation.

Born and raised Kula resident Timmy Bailey told officials: "I think we’re just concerned that there's not going to be a wide array of monitors to ensure that the data you’re collecting is accurate"

He added: "I understand that you guys didn't plan for this mistake and nobody does, and the mountain has been contaminated with fuel leaks, with cars and all kinds of stuff over decades, so we understand that, but with this project and mitigation, money should be spent wisely with a wide array of monitors… . Because it is sacred and a lot of people do feel the pain of what had happened."

His wife, Kathleen Bailey, retired from the National Park Service, said at the meeting, "I really do want to thank the U.S. Air Force for taking ownership of this and trying to move forward with it."

Still, Timmy Bailey suggested there be a mitigation agreement between the U.S. Space Force and Native Hawaiian groups for Phase 2 and 3, so for example the U.S. Space Force will be held accountable to the Hawaiian community if it doesn't fulfill everything in the agreement or do not deliver what they promise on accomplishing in the remediation project.

Wagenbach said it could be something that the department looks at moving forward.

Maui resident Kahele Dukelow said "we’re here because something happened and we have to work together to mitigate this particular issue," but wanted to make clear that some folks still do not support the military presence atop Haleakala.

"There's stuff that we’re going to have to do because we’re in this reality, but as far as what we see as future plans for the mountain, we’re on the opposite end," Dukelow said.

To "be better stewards" and prevent a mechanical issue from happening again — a small-scale spill happened at MSSC in the 1990s — the U.S. Space Force will conduct existing generator system reconfiguration this summer and will move the generator from its current location where it sat for 10 to 15 years to an existing concrete location, Wagenbach said.

A third liner will be added around the generator for additional protection, as well as a return line and pump to the fuel tank. The float valves will be replaced and the size of the tank will be reevaluated.

About two years down the road, U.S. Space Force officials discussed getting the full generator system replaced and will construct a permanent tertiary (third) containment.

The department will also look at alternative energy sources, with location and altitude taken into consideration.

"We needed to be better and we weren't, and that's something that at the highest level at the Department of the Air Force, we recognize that we were insufficient in how we were prepared for that kind of electric storm that was kind of a catalyst for this and how we’re going to do better next time to prevent any sort of recurrence of this type," Wagenbach said. "So, I’m really proud to say that we’ve been able to develop a phased approach and a very comprehensive remediation plan to get the contaminated soil remediated and corrected without additional impacts to the summit area."

* Staff Writer Dakota Grossman can be reached at [email protected].

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