Secretary of Navy Carlos Del Toro issued three letters of censure Thursday to retired Navy flag officers over the fuel leak at Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. Letters of instruction were issued to two other flag officers.
The secretary’s decision to issue the letters of censure to three retired rear admirals, as well as the Navy’s decision to issue letters of instruction to two additional flag officers and non-punitive censure letters to seven Navy captains, comes just over two weeks before Joint Task Force – Red Hill begins to defuel the storage facility. The leak contaminated the aquifer below the fuel depot and led to the decision to close the storage site.
Del Toro issued censure letters to retired Rear Adm. Peter Stamatopoulos, who served as commander of Naval Supply Systems Command during the May and November 2021 spills, retired Rear Adm. John Korka, who commanded Navy Facilities Engineering Command, Pacific, ahead of the spills and retired Rear Adm. Timothy Kott, the commander of Navy Region Hawaii during the November 2021 spill, according to a Thursday Navy news release. The three letters will go into the retired rear admirals’ official files.
“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 in each of the censure letters.
“What happened was not acceptable and the Department of the Navy will continue to take every action to identify and remedy this issue,” Del Toro said in the Navy release. “Taking accountability is a step in restoring the trust in our relationship with the community. We are determined and committed along with all of our partners in this effort to making the necessary changes. We can and will take care of our people, while also preserving and protecting our national security interests in the Pacific and at home.”
Del Toro considered the recommendations of U.S. Fleet Forces Commander Adm. Daryl Caudle, who acted as the consolidated disposition authority for the Red Hill situation.
Caudle issued the letters of instruction to Rear Adm. Dean VanderLey, commander of NAVFAC Pacific during the November 2021 spill, and retired Rear Adm. Robert Chadwick, the commander of Navy Region Hawaii during the May 2021 spill. He also issued non-punitive letters of censure to the seven captains and letters of instruction to a Navy commander and Navy lieutenant commander.
Three of the Navy captains who received censure letters have pending boards of inquiry to decide if they will continue their naval service, according to the Navy release.
In issuing a letter of censure to Stamatopoulos, Del Toro wrote that the retired rear admiral failed to properly perform his duties as the superior over the Pearl Harbor fleet logistics center. Under Stamatopoulos’s command, NAVSUP did not provide the necessary guidance for training, qualifications, operational practices or assessments at defense fuel support points, Del Toro wrote in his letter. The position is responsible for all of the petroleum in the servie.
“This failure contributed to the lack of performance assessment and feedback required to ensure proper readiness to respond to a complex fuel spill inside of Red Hill. The inadequate response to the 20 November 2021 fuel spill was the primary cause of the drinking water contamination,” reads the censure letter.
As NAVSUP commander, Stamatopoulos approved the investigation into the May 6, 2021 fuel spill, which was considered by Del Toro insufficient. The Navy secretary highlighted that the investigation into the May spill did not include recommendations for “meaningful corrective actions,” according to the letter.
“This inadequate investigation was the largest missed opportunity to properly identify the error in fuel accountability after the 6 May 2021 fuel spill,” Del Toro wrote. “The failure to fully account for the fuel spilled in the 6 May 2021 incident was the primary source of the 20 November 2021 fuel spill.”
Korka served as the NAVFAC Pacific commander between May 2017 and September 2018. During his tenure, he did not ensure that the command complied with requirements and procedures during both the contractin g and the installation of the Aqueous Film Forming Foam system. Failed oversight of the AFFF system lead to PVC piping in the AFFF waste system, which was one of the causes of the fuel spill, according to the censure letter. There was also a May 2023 AFFF spill.
As commander of Navy Region Hawaii, Kott failed to run fuel spill drills and exercises, as well coordinate a training plan, according to his censure letter. The lack of training led to the insufficient response to the November 2021 spill, resulting in contaminated drinking water.
“Despite the fact that fuel was actively spilling for approximately 34 hours, you did not direct the Navy On-Scene Coordinator Representative (NOSC-R) to assess the spill at the scene. Had you ensured a proper environmental risk analysis, the risk to the drinking water system could have been identified before the first reports of contamination,” Del Toro wrote.
The Navy secretary also criticized the former commander of Navy Region Hawaii for failing to notify Hawaii residents, including service members, about the Red Hill well, which has damaged public trust.