Red Hill Task Force Removes Last 'Residual Fuel'

Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility site tour.
A Navy Region Hawaii employee points to a valve as he explains the pipe configurations of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility to EPA and Hawaii Department of Health officials at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility Jan. 20, 2023. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Orlando Corpuz)

After months of work, on Wednesday the military task force charged with removing the fuel from the Navy's underground Red Hill storage facility announced it had extracted the last of the "accessible residual fuel " from the facility.

Since officially beginning defueling in October, Joint Task Force Red Hill has now successfully removed 104,703,574 gallons. It's a major milestone in the long Red Hill saga, but far from the end.

" The Environmental Protection Agency and Hawaii Department of Health are now conducting a Regulatory Interim Defueling Inspection to ensure and document all JTF-RH actions stipulated in the EPA Consent Order and DOH Emergency Order are complete, " JTF-RH said in its announcement. "The inspection is expected to conclude this week. Simultaneously, JTF-RH continues their turnover with the newly established Navy Closure Task Force to ensure continuity of mission for safety, security, and community engagement."

The Red Hill facility's massive fuel tanks sit just 100 feet above a critical aquifer that most of Southern Oahu relies on for drinking water. It was built underground during World War II both to hide it and protect it from Japanese Imperial forces.

After the war it became a critical strategic fuel reserve for the U.S. Navy's Pacific fleet, but also a subject of controversy. Local officials and activists raised concerns that it was a threat to Oahu's water, while Navy officials maintained it was vital for national security and perfectly safe.

But in November 2021 jet fuel from the facility tainted the Navy's Oahu water system, which serves 93, 000 people, including service members, military families and civilians in former military housing areas on the Navy waterline. After months of resisting a state emergency order to drain the tanks, in March 2022 the Pentagon announced it would defuel and permanently shut down the facility.

The military also came to acknowledge that after years of insisting it was safe and well maintained, that the Red Hill facility and the pipelines connecting it to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-­Hickam had fallen into deep disrepair and would require extensive repairs and upgrades before defueling could begin.

In September 2021 the Pentagon established JTF-RH under the leadership of Vice Adm. John Wade to oversee removal of the fuel. The original deadline was summer 2024, though Wade said he was looking for ways to expedite the process.

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which has called for Red Hill's closure since well before the November 2021 incident, welcomed the announcement.

"BWS appreciates the work of Vice Adm. John Wade and the JTF-RH team to reach this milestone," the agency said in a statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "The work to defuel the remaining fuel, sludge and the 900 gallons of AFFF (firefighting ) concentrate is not done and will take years to complete. We look forward to working with Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett and the Navy Closure Task Force-Red Hill. It is important that we not forget that the aina and wai needs to be remediated and restored."

In a statement, Gov. Josh Green's office said that "the announcement from JTF-Red Hill today is welcome news. We will continue to work with our Navy and community partners to see the entire process through to the end, which is the complete shut-down of Red Hill."

"With more than 100 million gallons of fuel removed, the draining of Red Hill is nearly complete, " said U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz in a statement. "While we still have more work to do to make sure the area is fully cleaned up and restored, we have made good progress."

U.S. Rep. Ed Case praised Wade's leadership and the work of the task force, but said that the next stage is "kind of the harder side of it to get at, which is the sludge, which is mostly down in the bottom of pipelines, and really takes a lot more effort. And they're doing that in conjunction with the actual removal of the pipelines."

During last month's meeting of the Red Hill Community Representation Initiative, the Red Hill facility's former fuel director, Shannon Bencs, a Navy officer-turned whistleblower who was removed from her position after raising repeated concerns about the safety of the facility, asked military leaders how they will approach community safety as they move forward with removing leftover sludge and potential poisons.

"Now that you've defueled the tanks and the pipelines, now there's poisonous toxic fumes in those tanks and the only way to vent them out is through the top of Red Hill and then through the (vents ), " Bencs said, warning that it will be "extremely toxic, and it will flow down to Halawa Valley and down to Pearl Harbor."

Barnett, commander of Navy Region Hawaii, told Bencs "that is something that we'll be working through as far as the ventilation." He also said the Navy would ensure the community would be notified when necessary.

Wayne Tanaka, director of the Sierra Club's Hawaii chapter, told the Star-Advertiser, "I am grateful for the progress that continues to be made, and for the tireless community advocacy that has gotten us this far. However, we must remain vigilant as the removal of 30, 000 gallons of remaining sludge and closure of the facility will present new risks and challenges."

Ultimately the shutdown of Red Hill could take as many as three more years.

"We cannot all collectively somehow turn our attention away from it, it's got to be seen all the way through, " said Case. "The EPA and the State of Hawaii are not going away, the Board of Water Supply is not going away and the congressional delegation is not going away ... nothing has changed in terms of oversight and scrutiny and funding."


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