DOD To Close Hawaii’s Red Hill Fuel Facility After Contaminated Water Crisis

March 7, 2022Maggie BenZvi
close red hill

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks tours Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility with senior naval leadership Dec. 14, 2021, on Oahu, Hawaii. DOD photo by US Air Force Staff Sgt. Brittany A. Chase.

The Department of Defense will permanently close the Red Hill fuel storage facility that leaked petroleum into Pearl Harbor’s drinking water in Hawaii, but the process might not be done until the spring of 2023.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made the decision Monday, March 7, after consulting a new Pentagon assessment, according to a senior defense official who spoke to The Associated Press under the condition of anonymity.

Sen. Mazie Hirono confirmed the decision in a press release Monday afternoon, which stated, “I strongly support the Department of Defense’s decision to close the Red Hill facility, which I have been urging them to do for weeks. I have said from day one that ensuring the health and safety of the residents of Oahu is my top priority and I share the community’s big sigh of relief with this news.” 

Mazie Hirono, US senator from Hawaii, during a June 30, 2015, tour of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. Photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist John M. Hageman.

The 20 tanks that make up the World War II-era Red Hill fuel facility are capable of holding 250 million gallons of fuel but are currently at half capacity. They sit 100 feet above a freshwater aquifer that supplies 77% of the drinking water on the island of Oahu.

A small leak in May and a larger spill in November 2021 allowed thousands of gallons of fuel to seep into a well supplying Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam with its water. Thousands of residents fell ill, and upwards of 3,500 families were temporarily displaced from contaminated housing. 

The military will now shift to a more dispersed fueling system for ships and aircraft in the Indo-Pacific, the senior defense official told the AP. The plan involves storing fuel on a dozen existing fueling ships in the Pacific fleet, as well as building additional ships and increasing fuel contracts with other nations in the Indo-Pacific region.

An assessment team that had been trying to figure out how to make the fuel tanks safe to operate will now shift its focus to figuring out how to shut the tanks down and safely remove the fuel, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Monday. That team must report its recommendations by the end of April.

Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility
The fuel facility at Red Hill is composed of 20 tanks, each of which can hold 12.5 million gallons of jet fuel. It sits 100 feet above a freshwater aquifer that is vital to the ecosystem of Oahu. US Navy photo by Shannon Haney.

Kirby did not offer a timeline on the environmental mitigation but said, “We will defuel [Red Hill], and we will close it, and we estimate we can do that within 12 months.”

Only then, he said, would the Pentagon begin to review the environmental damage and needed cleanup. The bill for any environmental cleanup will fall on the Pentagon, but Kirby said he couldn’t offer a “dollar figure” for what that might cost.

“The impact on the families is foremost on everybody’s minds,” Kirby said, adding that the Navy “is working hard to get those families back into their homes.”

“I am happy people won’t get sick anymore from those tanks,” Jamie Simic told Coffee or Die Magazine. Simic is the wife of a Navy master diver and has been pleading with the Navy for accurate information about the spill that made her entire family sick.

Sen. Brian Schatz said Congress would “hold DoD’s feet to the fire” to make sure federal officials see the plan through.

“There will be challenges ahead, but make no mistake: Red Hill will be shut down,” Schatz said.

Read Next: Flushed Down the Drain: Families Lose Trust in Navy Over Red Hill Spill

Maggie BenZvi
Maggie BenZvi

Maggie BenZvi is a contributing editor for Coffee or Die. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University, and has worked for the ACLU as well as the International Rescue Committee. She has also completed a summer journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In addition to her work at Coffee or Die, she’s a stay-at-home mom and, notably, does not drink coffee. Got a tip? Get in touch!

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