Massive defueling of leaky Hawaiian storage facility begins
As 104 million gallons of fuel are hauled to four new locations, a yearslong remediation effort will begin at Red Hill.
JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii—A Joint Task Force will begin defueling Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility on Monday, the first step in an arduous, yearslong process to drain and close the facility and remediate the aquifer, after fuel spills in 2021 contaminated the drinking water for tens of thousands of people.
The merchant tanker Empire State arrived here Wednesday to begin the task of loading 104 million gallons of fuel, enough to fill nearly 160 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The process will start with “gravity defueling,” which is slated to last until the third week of January and expected to remove “99.9% of the fuel” from the underground tanks, Joint Task Force – Red Hill Commander Vice Adm. John Wade said Friday. After that, the task force will remove residual fuel before handing the facility over to the Navy for closure.
Once the fuel is drained from the tanks, it will be taken to San Diego, Calif.; Singapore; the Philippines; or one of two other storage facilities on Oahu, a JTF-Red Hill spokesperson told Defense One. Most of those facilities are above ground, and therefore pose less risk than Red Hill, said Martha Guzman, Environmental Protection Agency administrator for the Pacific Southwest.
The spill began in March 2021, when an operator’s error caused a pipe to burst, releasing 19,000-plus gallons of jet fuel into tunnels that connect the various parts of the underground facility. A sump pump sucked much of the fuel into a holding tank, and about six months later, an errant cart smashed a valve that released the fuel into the local drinking water supply, according to EPA reports.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said she called Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after the November 2021 spill, to tell him Red Hill needed to be addressed at the Pentagon level.
“I said to the secretary: the Red Hill situation needs to come to your level of decision-making—not just the Navy, and no offense to the Navy, but it needed to come to the Department of Defense level of attention and decision-making.”
Pentagon officials initially resisted calls to close the facility, but Austin announced in March 2022 that he had ordered the defueling and closure of Red Hill.
Since then, the Pentagon and the service branches have looked to see what lessons they can apply from Red Hill to other fuel-supply points around the world.
Wade said moving the massive store of fuel “from one central location and pushing it to different locations adds flexibility and agility as we conduct deterrence in the critical Indo-Pacific region, and better prepared if there’s a conflict or a contingency.”
While the specific actions have not been announced yet, “there are a substantial number of things that are changing as a result of what we understand” about the tank structure and what happened, said Brendan Owens, assistant defense secretary for energy, installations, and environment.
The defueling is starting about five months earlier than expected, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said Friday.
But “for many people in this community, this milestone is more of a source of relief than a cause for celebration,” said Kathy Ho, deputy director of environmental health for the Hawaii Department of Health. “We’ve arrived at the beginning and not the end.”