Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Midway fuel spill contained on island

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

An unnoticed pipeline leak dumped nearly 100,000 gallons of jet fuel into the coral soils of Midway Atoll's Sand Island last week.

Hawai'i oil spills

Major Hawai'i oil spills over past five years:

• February 2003 spill from pipeline on Midway Atoll, 75,000 to 100,000 gallons, most underground, one bird oiled.

• January 2001 spill from Tesoro Hawai'i mooring off Barbers Point, 4,200 gallons, slick drifts on ocean toward Kaua'i but misses island.

• August 1998 spill from Tesoro Hawai'i mooring off Barbers Point, nearly 5,000 gallons, slick hits Kaua'i beaches, oils at least 41 birds, of which 12 survive.

• May 1996 spill from Chevron pipeline near Pearl Harbor, 41,000 gallons, slick fouls Pearl Harbor and adjacent streams.

A cleanup was launched Friday after a site visit by officials from the Coast Guard, Fish and Wildlife Service, GeoEngineers and Pacific Environmental Corp. Most of the fuel remained underground and only one seabird, a Laysan albatross chick, was contaminated. The bird was cleaned and appeared to be recovering, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

The spill is the largest in recent history in the Hawaiian archipelago — more than double the volume of the 1996 Chevron pipeline spill that dumped thousands of gallons of oil into Pearl Harbor. A preliminary estimate is that the Midway spill amounts to between 75,000 and 100,000 gallons, but engineers will be trying to refine that figure as they study records of the fuel storage plant.

Midway Atoll, a national wildlife refuge, has been closed to the public since early last year, and has been operated by contractors GeoEngineers and American Airports while the Fish and Wildlife Service works on plans to reopen it to the public.

Engineers last week noticed that fuel levels were dropping in a tank of JP-5 fuel, which is used both to refuel aircraft and to run the island's generators. They traced the leak to an underground fitting on a pipeline, which had once been used to collect fuel samples. The iron fitting had an aluminum cap, which corroded and gave way.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said the jet fuel appeared to be mixing with a previously undiscovered underground spill of a thick, black oil. It was not identified during the Navy's hazardous materials assessment and cleanup of the island before the Navy turned Midway over to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1996, said Barbara Maxfield, the Fish and Wildlife Service.

During its years as a Navy facility, ships and aircraft were fueled from the tank farm on Sand Island.

The oils had not escaped into the nearby lagoon waters as of yesterday. Oil-absorbing booms were placed in the water around the seawall. The spill appeared to be floating on top of the island's water table, about 8 feet below the surface at the site of the tank farm.

Crews dug two pits and are alternately sucking them dry as they fill with oily water. The effort had recovered about 10,000 gallons as of Monday, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service statement.

The crews are pumping the fouled water into a tank to let sand settle out, and then into another tank for storage until it can be barged off the island.

Midway, about 1,110 miles northwest of Kaua'i, is one atoll away from the most westerly point in the Hawaiian archipelago. The atoll provides a mid-ocean nesting spot for an estimated two million seabirds, along with endangered Hawaiian monk seals and threatened green sea turtles.

Midway was the site of a huge air and sea battle that turned the tide of World War II in the Pacific.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.