Operations To Remove Fuel at Red Hill Begin Monday

Oct. 16, 2023

Oct. 14—On that day, defueling 104 million gallons of aviation and marine fuel contained inside the once secret, underground Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility is expected to commence.

A historic milestone for Oahu as well as the U.S. Navy takes place Monday.

On that day, defueling 104 million gallons of aviation and marine fuel contained inside the once secret, underground Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility is expected to commence.

The Joint Task Force-Red Hill, the military organization the Pentagon established to do this work, will use a "gravity " defueling method to drain the fuel tanks and the miles of fuel lines that snake through the World War II-era facility, which is built along an uphill slope and suffered two major fuel leaks in recent years.

That included the November 2021 incident in which jet fuel leaked into the Navy's water system, which serves 93, 000 people on Oahu, including military families and civilians in former military housing areas.

The Red Hill defueling effort is expected to last through late January, the task force says.

After the defueling is complete, state, federal and military officials say they'll coordinate efforts to permanently close the fuel storage site built hundreds of feet beneath the mouth of Halawa Valley. And following its closure, officials say they'll mitigate any environmental contamination—including any petroleum or fuel-related chemicals—that might have infiltrated Oahu's aquifer, which most of Honolulu relies on for fresh drinking water.

During a Friday morning news conference at Kilo Pier, inside Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Vice Adm. John Wade, the Red Hill task force commander, was joined by Gov. Josh Green, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono and officials from the state Department of Health, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Defense.

"After many months of effort, the removal of 104 million gallons of fuel can finally begin, " Green said, noting the defueling work was five months ahead of schedule. "We're committed to our community to do this."

The governor said he was also "confident and hopeful that the repairs and enhancements that have been carried out by the Department of Defense in cooperation with the EPA and the Department of Health " will lead to "a safe and successful defueling process."

As part of this multi-agency effort that's come under public scrutiny, Green added, "It's vital that we trust one another, it's vital that we do this right."

For her part, Hirono acknowledged the critical role Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin played in closing down the fuel facility, which she said was due in part to a phone call she'd placed to the head of the DOD.

"He was not expecting that call, " Hirono quipped.

Noting the pending closure "of this massive World War II facility " was not intended, she added that the action was ultimately done to ensure the safety of the people of Oahu, "and to make sure that the Navy's activities in Hawaii comported with our values and our safety, " said Hirono.

"And it's not over, of course, because after the closure they are going to need to continue to monitor the environmental issues and other monitoring issues to make sure that there is no contamination of our aquifer."

Kathy Ho, deputy director of environmental health at DOH, said Red Hill's defueling was the beginning, not the end.

"Defueling is the first step of three nonnegotiable conditions that were set forth in the Department of Health's emergency order, " Ho said. "After defueling will come permanent closure of the tanks, then finally, the remediation of our aquifer."

Following reporters' questions over potential or existing contamination to Oahu's aquifer, officials say the Navy will lead any future environmental remediation at the Red Hill site.

"That mission in and of itself is beyond the purview of the Joint Task Force, " Wade said. "That is a Navy responsibility, with Navy Region Hawaii, but rest assured that they're working each and every day, in partnership with the regulators and the other entities, " which include the city's Board of Water Supply.

Green said the state will seek "a lot of additional sampling wells " to check the safety of Oahu's aquifer.

EPA Regional Administrator Martha Guzman said there are an existing working group and a "subject matter expert " looking to find ways to remediate any damage to the island's water source.

"So it's not like we're waiting to start the work on the remediation and the recovery of the aquifer, " Guzman said. "That group is meeting."

When asked about the actual levels of possible fuel contamination to Oahu's aquifer, DOH's Ho said, "There has been regular testing of the water, and thus far there has been no hints of petroleum in the water."

On Friday, hundreds of feet behind those same officials, the 600-foot merchant tanker Empire State, home-ported in Wilmington, Del., was docked.

The tanker, which arrived at Pearl Harbor on Oct. 11 and is deemed a crucial part of the defueling effort, can carry 11 million gallons of fuel. But more oceangoing tankers are expected to arrive during the defueling operation.

Previously, Wade said those tankers will ferry fuel to West Oahu facilities run by Island Energy Services at Campbell Industrial Park, to a fuel storage point in San Diego, a fuel storage point in the Philippines at Subic Bay and another fuel storage point in Singapore.

According to the DOD, the military will pursue a new "distributed " model of storing fuel at various locations around the Pacific, as well as "afloat locations " aboard tankers.

In particular, the Pacific Fleet has emphasized operations around the South China Sea, a critical waterway that one-third of all trade moves through and is at the center of bitter disputes over territorial and navigation rights.------Staff writer Kevin Knodell contributed to this report.


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