Honolulu Board of Water Supply Manager Ernie Lau said he had raised concerns with Wade and other leaders about how a potential shutdown might disrupt the effort.
The top officer in charge of defueling the Navy's underground Red Hill fuel storage facility says a possible federal government shutdown would not affect the operation.
The facility holds 104 million gallons of fuel and sits just 100 feet above a critical aquifer that most of Hawaii relies on for water. In September 2022 the military created the Joint Task Force Red Hill under Vice Adm. John Wade to make repairs to the aging World War II-era facility in order to "safely and expeditiously " remove the fuel.
"The secretary of defense has exempted all personnel supporting the defueling of Red Hill from furlough, and all contracts will remain in place, " Wade said in a video released late Monday night. "This means that the mission is deemed critical, and we'll continue to work even if there's a shutdown. Bottom line, we remain on plan, and we'll keep the community informed if anything changes."
The news came as a relief to Honolulu Board of Water Supply Manager Ernie Lau, who said he had raised concerns with Wade and other leaders about how a potential shutdown might disrupt the effort. A federal shutdown could start Sunday if the House of Representatives does not a reach a budget deal.
"It's really important to actually do the defueling, " Lau said. "There's many different moving pieces to coordinate, like the tankers coming in, all the efforts of the whole team and the Joint Task Force, with the regulators, ensuring that safe defueling is achieved."
The facility has long been a concern for the Board of Water Supply and others who have contended since a 2014 leak at a Red Hill tank that it posed a threat to Oahu's water supply.
The Navy for years insisted the facility was safe and argued that it was critical to supporting the Pacific Fleet's vast regional operations. But in November 2021, fuel from the facility tainted the Navy's Oahu water system, which serves 93, 000 people, including military families and local civilians living in former military housing areas.
Subsequently, the military has acknowledged that the aging facility and the pipes connecting them to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam had fallen into deep disrepair and would require extensive repairs to safely remove the fuel without further endangering the aquifer.
When JTF Red Hill started operations, the slated completion target for making the repairs and defueling the tanks was July 2024, but Wade stressed at the time that he was looking for ways to expedite the process. Now JTF Red Hill says those repairs are complete and defueling is set to begin Oct. 15, with most of the fuel expected to be safely removed by the end of January.
Lau, who has been a fierce critic of the military's handling of the crisis, said he was impressed by what JTF Red Hill has managed to do.
"I think once they created that group and they really had a single focus in mind, a single objective to defuel the tanks and the pipes, that was positive, " said Lau. "Prior to that there was this uncertainty and who would be the single point of responsibility for this effort."
But in the video release Monday, Wade also said JTF Red Hill is waiting for approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health to move forward with the plan.
"This is an important part of the oversight process because they hold us to federal and state standards, ensuring that we execute the mission safely, " he said.
EPA spokesman Michael Brogan told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the agency is reviewing the Navy's responses to a list of questions about the defueling operation.
Under the federal consent order, the Navy and JTF Red Hill must submit a "Defueling Preparedness Report " stating that they have completed all obligations as required under the order prior to defueling, and the EPA needs to approve it.
"We expect to complete that process this week, " said Brogan. "We do not have any concerns about the operations and expect to issue the approval prior to scheduled defueling."
State Department of Health officials said in a statement that they are reviewing JTF Red Hill's responses to its comments on the defueling operational plans submitted Friday and that "the DOH remains on track to approve defueling by Oct. 11, 2023, as specified in the JTF's Defueling Integrated Master Schedule (IMS ), which DOH conditionally approved on June 23, 2023."
JTF Red Hill's mission will end after it removes the 104 million gallons of fuel in the tanks, but the Navy's long-term remediation and shutdown of the facility is expected to take years.
Lau said that while he would have preferred that the fuel was removed earlier, he's cautiously optimistic JTF Red Hill will be successful.
"I think it's really important to remember this effort in our prayers, to hope that there's no mishap or other spills or releases to our aquifer, and hopefully that they will do an efficient, quick and safe job of defueling the tanks and pipelines, " said Lau.
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