Secretary Austin to Visit Hawaii as Navy Prepares to Defuel Tanks that Caused Contaminated Water

Technicians collect a water sample from Red Hill Well in Hawaii.
Technicians collect a water sample from Red Hill Well in Hawaii under an interagency-approved pumping and filtration plan, March 9, 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Christopher Thomas)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will travel to Hawaii this week for an update on the Navy's effort to remove 105 million gallons of fuel from its Red Hill bulk storage facility north of the city.

According to a Pentagon press release, Austin will meet with Navy Rear Adm. John Wade, whom he appointed last week to lead the work. Wade, who previously served as director of operations for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, is tasked with working on the project alongside the Environmental Protection Agency, the Hawaii Department of Health and community leaders and residents.

As the result of spills that contaminated the drinking water for thousands of homes at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam last year, Austin announced in March his intention to close the massive Red Hill facility, which contains more than 12.4 million gallons of diesel and 93 million gallons of jet fuel.

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The Navy delivered its proposal for defueling the Red Hill facility in June, but the Hawaii Department of Health rejected it, saying it lacked sufficient detail for transferring such a large amount of fuel in a sensitive environment that includes Honolulu's main source of drinking water.

The service then submitted a revised proposal earlier this month. That plan included more specifics and shortened the timeline for closing the facility. According to the Navy, the operation is now expected to take roughly five months instead of the projected eight, and it should be completed by July 2024.

Navy officials said the new plan is "completely focused on the safe and expeditious defueling of the facility."

"As we move forward, we will continually refine and improve this plan, and keep stakeholders and the community informed throughout the process. Every action we take must protect the environment and the community," Rear Adm. Steve Barnett, commander, Navy Region Hawaii, said Sept. 7 in a statement accompanying the proposal.

State officials and environmental advocates have long called for the closure of Red Hill, citing numerous spills and the threat to a major aquifer. The warnings became reality last November when military personnel and families living at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam started reporting the smell of petroleum or fuel from their taps and a sheen in their water.

A subsequent investigation found that nearly 20,000 gallons of fuel had accidentally spilled into the sumps and fire suppression pipes at Red Hill in May; the petroleum products contained in those pipes were released into a nearby drinking water well that served the installation in November following an accident.

As a result, hundreds of residents were sickened and thousands were displaced to hotels or forced to use bottled water for months while the Navy flushed the installation's water system.

Some families have filed lawsuits and claims over the contaminated water, saying they have lasting health problems as a result of exposure.

The EPA has released multiple reports and records in the past several months, saying the Navy violated state and federal regulations in managing its water distribution system, which serves more than 93,000 residents.

On Friday, the EPA released records saying the Navy did not operate the fuel facility according to "good engineering practice," and it lacked an adequate spill response plan for dealing with a mishap.

The service also did not have the necessary permits for two fuel sumps that should have been categorized as underground fuel storage tanks, according to the EPA. The sumps, EPA officials said, did not have records indicating they met federal environmental standards.

In August, the EPA released the results of another investigation into the drinking water system that found the Navy lacked a preventive maintenance program for the system and did not have a safety training program or standard operating procedures for the personnel who operate the tanks.

The EPA also found that one of the water storage tanks contained a significant amount of sediment, an active pump shaft contained rust, and there were geckos nesting in two water storage tanks.

The Navy completed a response exercise at Red Hill last week that simulated the recovery of a spill from the fuel lines -- part of the process for demonstrating that the Department of Defense can defuel the facility and close it.

Officials called it a "significant milestone" in the preparation process, testing their ability to respond to spills and work with multiple agencies during the fuel removal process.

"Demonstrating that our personnel have the ability to quickly and appropriately respond to a release or spill at Red Hill is crucial in our continued effort to safely and expeditiously defuel the facility," Barnett said in a media release.

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

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