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Pentagon says it will appeal the state order to empty Red Hill fuel tanks

Kathleen Hicks pentagon military red hill
Andrew Harnik/AP
Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

A top Pentagon official said Monday the military will appeal Hawaiʻi's order to defuel the Navy's underground Red Hill fuel storage facility — a decision met with criticism from Hawaiʻi’s congressional delegation, the state Department of Health and many others.

The state demanded the Navy defuel the tanks after a fuel leak at the facility contaminated the service’s drinking water system around Pearl Harbor in late November. Military residents said their tap water smelled like fuel, or reported physical ailments after ingesting it.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said in a statement that the military continues to take actions “consistent with” Hawaiʻi’s order to drain the tanks.

Hicks said the military would meet Hawaiʻi’s Wednesday deadline to submit a work plan and implementation schedule for an assessment by an independent third party. Hawaiʻi’s order says the Navy must drain the tanks, and it won’t be able to use them again until it shows that it can do so safely.

Hicks said the military has until Wednesday to file an appeal, which it will do "in both federal and state court."

She did not specify the precise reasons for the move, but said it "will afford us time to make evidence-based and transparent decisions.” She said the Navy still hopes to work with the state to solve the crisis.

Hawaiʻi Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathleen Ho said she was disappointed by the decision and would fight in court to force the Navy to make Red Hill safe.

Navy officials told members of Congress on Jan. 11 that they would comply with the order, but did not dismiss the prospect of legal challenges.

"Today’s announcement that they intend to appeal the emergency order is yet another breach of trust between the Navy and the people of Hawaiʻi," Ho said. "DOH will continue to act to protect Hawaiʻi residents and our environment.”

The health department said its emergency order will remain in effect throughout the appeal process.

“All their words about building trust and prioritizing our safety just went out the window,” said Wayne Tanaka, Sierra Club of Hawai‘i director. “The people of Hawaiʻi are not stupid, and we are not expendable.”

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz called the decision "a grave and unforced error that undermines public trust," while U.S. Rep. Kaiali‘i Kahele called it "a betrayal to the people of Hawaiʻi."

"Fortunately, we have civilian oversight of the military, and this inexplicable and maddening resistance to the defuel order will not succeed. They will lose in court, and they will lose in Congress," Schatz said.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono said she spoke with Hicks over the phone Monday evening.

"During our call, she reiterated that the intent behind the appeal is to provide the necessary time to continue working towards a solution with the State," Hirono said in a statement. "This must happen expeditiously and without any unnecessary delays... I will oppose any appeal by DoD that challenges the State’s authority to regulate Red Hill operations."

Separately, Hicks said the military was working to analyze the distribution of its fuel reserves in the Pacific. She said this would be finished within 60 days to allow the defense secretary to decide what to do about Red Hill “moving forward.”

Read the state emergency order below or click here to open a new tab.

Sophia McCullough is a digital news producer. Contact her at
Scott Kim is a news editor at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Contact him at
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