DoD Appealing Order to Drain 100 Million Gallons of Fuel from Honolulu Tank Above Drinking Water

Red Hill Well recovery effort for Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam housing
A Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command contractor prepares a granular activated carbon filtration system to begin Red Hill Well recovery efforts at the facility, Jan. 29, 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Christopher Thomas)

The Defense Department will appeal a Hawaii Department of Health order to remove at least 100 million gallons of fuel stored at an aging bulk storage facility in the hills above Honolulu, Pentagon officials announced Monday.

Facing the prospect of relocating jet fuel and diesel that supplies U.S. forces in the Pacific, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said Monday the DoD is complying with portions of the order, which include suspending fuel transfer at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, installing better equipment and bringing in an independent firm to assess operations and integrity of the facility -- a review that is to be complete by April 30.

At the same time, however, the Pentagon decided to appeal the order in both federal and state court, facing a legal deadline of Feb. 2, Hicks said in a statement released Monday night.

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The appeal, according to Hicks, will afford the DoD "time to make evidence-based and transparent decisions" on the future of the facility.

"Despite these legal process requirements, we hope to collaborate with the State of Hawaii in a way that would allow the parties the time and space needed to reach solutions together," Hicks said.

She added that, in speaking with Hawaii Gov. David Ige on Monday, she had pledged to remain "laser-focused on addressing the Red Hill situation."

    "We know the importance of getting this right for the people of Hawaii, our service members, and our military families. We are taking this seriously, and the Secretary has prioritized resources from across the department to effectively and efficiently take the steps required to address this problem," Hicks said in the statement.

    Military families residing at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and Aliamanu Military Reservation began reporting Nov. 28 that their water smelled like fuel and had a visible sheen.

    The Hawaii Department of Health and the Navy later determined that a fuel spill from the Red Hill storage facility earlier in the month had contaminated a well and shaft below the property, also known as Red Hill.

    The contamination led to the displacement of thousands of military families and civilians who live in base housing, with more electing to live in their homes and bring in water from outside sources.

    The Navy launched a massive cleanup effort that includes flushing the entire system and individual homes and buildings. As of this week, the service had completed flushing and testing of the system in 11 neighborhoods, reporting that the water meets or exceeds Environmental Protection Agency and Hawaii Department of Health standards for safe drinking water.

    However, the service said two homes had failed testing and will be flushed again and retested.

    The Navy announced over the weekend that it plans to remove contaminated water from the well itself at the rate of five million gallons each day. Contaminants will be removed using skimming pumps, booms and absorbent pads inside the well, and the water will be moved to a capture zone and treated with massive carbon filters before being tested and released into a nearby stream that feeds into Pearl Harbor.

    Under the order, the Navy also will bring in an independent firm to assess operations and the integrity of Red Hill to determine whether it can be safely operated or must be decommissioned.

    The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility has the capacity to hold up to 250 million gallons of fuel. The Sierra Club estimates that roughly 100 million gallons are stored in the tanks, which were installed during World War II.

    In 2018, Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command estimated that the cost to replace the aging tanks at Red Hill would run between $4 billion and $10 billion.

    -- Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct Hicks' title.

    -- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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