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Navy halts use of Red Hill fuel storage complex above Oʻahu aquifer

Carlos del Toro NAVSEC
Robert F. Bukaty/AP
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AP
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro speaks at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in Kittery, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The U.S. Navy announced Monday that it has suspended the use of the World War II-era Red Hill fuel tank facility that sits above one of Honolulu’s most important aquifers and water sources — following days of complaints that tap water smells like fuel and has sickened some people.

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro traveled to Pearl Harbor and told reporters he was apologizing to everyone affected by what he called a “horrible, horrible tragedy.”

Nearly 1,000 military households have complained about their tap water and some said they have suffered physical ailments such as cramps and vomiting recently after drinking it. The Navy water system serves about 93,000 people.

A water sample returned last week showed the presence of petroleum in water that comes from a well near the underground fuel tank complex that has been the source of multiple fuel leaks over the years.

NAVSEC RED HILL 2 carlos del toro
Office of the Secretary of the Navy
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Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday tour the Red Hill fuel storage facility on Dec. 6, 2021.

Del Toro said officials were getting close to determining the cause of the problem and that when the investigation is completed and reviewed, the Navy will adopt water safety precautions.

“This will allow us to implement new safety actions before resuming operations,” Del Toro said.

When asked if the Navy is considering permanently shutting down the fuel tank farm, Del Toro said all possibilities are being explored.

“We’re looking at some very serious options here in the very near future,” he said.

Fuel from the tanks is used to power many U.S. military ships and planes that patrol the Pacific Ocean, but Del Toro said the cutoff's impact on military operations would “have a very minimal effect, if any, at all right now."

“I don’t want to get into topics with conversations with regards to how long we can continue to do this for national security reasons, but there’s really no minimum operation to our fleet’s activities or activities impacting the Air Force or the Army or the Marine Corps for any near term at all,” Del Toro said.

The announcement comes after Hawaiʻi’s governor and congressional delegation called on the Navy to suspend operations at the fuel storage facility.

Rear Admiral Blake Converse, deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said that the use of the tank farm was suspended on Nov. 27 but officials did not say why the Navy waited until Monday, Dec. 6, to make that announcement.

“I know there are concerns that we have not been transparent with the results of our testing and our procedures," Del Toro said. "You have my commitment and promise that the information that we provide is the most accurate information that we have available.”

During World War II, the Roosevelt administration was concerned about the vulnerability of above-the-ground fuel tanks to attacks — so the Navy built the tank farm named the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, or Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility.

The facility has 20 steel-lined underground tanks, which can collectively store up to 250 million gallons (946 million liters) of fuel. The tanks are encased in concrete and stored inside cavities of a volcanic mountain ridge near Honolulu. Pipelines from the tanks run 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) inside a tunnel to fueling piers at Pearl Harbor.

The fuel in the tanks is used by the U.S. Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard and Hawaiʻi National Guard for ships and aircraft. The Navy has said Red Hill is vital to maritime security, regional stability, humanitarian assistance and continued prosperity in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

The Department of Defense has spent more than $200 million on updating the facility and conducting environmental testing since 2006, according to the Navy.

This is a developing story.

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