Five Navy admirals will receive non-judicial punishments for their role in the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility fuel spills in 2021 that led to water contamination for thousands stationed at a Hawaii base, the service said Friday. Three admirals will receive letters of censure while two others will receive letters of instruction.

None will be allowed to have end-of-tour awards, a significant rebuke for a senior Navy leader. All but one of the officers have already retired.

The Red Hill leaks allowed more than 20,000 gallons of fuel to leak into drinking water, exposing more than 93,000 people at the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and surrounding communities to toxic chemicals. 

A class-action lawsuit as well as other legal claims describe various health effects linked to the water contamination including fatigue, seizures, burns, and gastrointestinal disorders.

Katie Cherkasky, a former JAG officer who now specializes in military law as a civilian attorney, said a censure letter is non-punitive and goes into an officer’s permanent file. The officers also have the ability to submit a rebuttal to the administrative action.

“They are not able to take any sort of rank or pay or punish them in any way. It’s just the existence of the letter itself that’s the punishment,” she said. 

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro issued Secretarial Letters of Censure to Rear Adm. Peter Stamatopoulos who was commander of Naval Supply Systems Command; Rear Adm. John Korka, who was commander of Navy Facilities Engineering Command Pacific; and Rear Adm. Timothy Kott who was commander of Navy Region Hawaii.

“Taking accountability is a step in restoring the trust in our relationship with the community,” Del Toro said in a release. 

Del Toro issued the letters based on recommendations from the Consolidated Disposition Authority, led by Adm. Daryl Caudle, which leads accountability actions related to the fuel leaks. The Secretary determined that there were no leaders in relevant positions at the Red Hill facility “worthy of an end of tour award over the period in question.”

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Caudle also issued non-punitive censure letters to seven Navy captains. A board is currently deciding on whether three of the seven can continue their naval service. 

Typically when the command issues formal documentation to dispose of the case, that’s the “final word on it,” Cherkasky said, but that it “doesn’t tie their hands” in terms of taking additional actions.

“It’s not like if they issue a letter that would preclude them from prosecution,” Cherkasky said. “But it seems to be an indication that’s how they chose to dispose of the case in lieu of actual recall to active duty,” which would be required for the officers to face court-martial or other criminal proceedings.

Along with negligence around the spill itself, families and residents affected by the spill believed the Navy had been slow to acknowledge and react to the spill, to the point that some saw a cover-up.

In November 2021, families living in base housing near the Red Hill facility reported chemical smells and an oily sheen in their water. Investigators later found that a fuel leak that began in May 2021, caused by operator error, had begun to infiltrate into drinking water. But the Navy told families that the water was safe. 

A day later, the Hawaii Department of Health announced that the water was no longer usable for cooking, drinking, or oral hygiene. 

An internal Navy report insisted that there was “never an intent to mislead, lie, or obfuscate in any case” but acknowledged leadership and communication issues that led to the families’ deep mistrust of the Navy’s ability to handle the unfolding crisis. 

A court filing in March 2023 alleged that the water contamination also contained antifreeze.

In November 2022, the Navy announced plans to decommission the Red Hill facility by January 19, 2024

Because the officers are retired, the letters must be issued by the Secretary of the Navy rather than a currently-serving officer, Cherkasky said, making them Secretarial Letters of Censure.

The CDA issued Letters of Instruction to Rear Adm. Dean VanderLey who was commander during the November 2021 spill and NAVFAC Pacific and Rear Adm. (ret) Robert Chadwick who was commander of Navy Region Hawaii during the May 2021 spill.

Letters of instruction identify discrepancies or errors and present a plan or “counseling of some sort,” Cherkasky said. They have the same impacts as censure letters in that they go into military personnel files which can be accessed for civilian needs like employment.

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