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Pentagon to permanently shut down leaking Red Hill fuel tank facility

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Daniel Mayberry/Naval Supply Systems Command Fle
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(July 17, 2020) Fuels director, LCDR Shannon Bencs walks a portion of the 7 miles of tunnels of the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility. (U.S. Navy photo by Daniel Mayberry/Released)

WASHINGTON — The Defense Department will permanently shut down the Navy's massive Red Hill fuel tank facility that leaked petroleum into Pearl Harbor's tap water, and will remove all the fuel, the Pentagon said Monday.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the decision by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is based on a new Pentagon assessment, but also is in line with an order from Hawaiʻi's Department of Health to drain fuel from the tanks at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.

"As an outcome of this review, today I am directing the Secretary of the Navy, in coordination with the Commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, to take all steps necessary to defuel and permanently close the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility," Austin told senior Pentagon leadership.

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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin

The facility, built into the side of a mountain during World War II to protect them from enemy attack, had leaked into a drinking water well and contaminated water at Pearl Harbor homes and offices.

"Centrally-located bulk fuel storage of this magnitude likely made sense in 1943, when Red Hill was built. And Red Hill has served our armed forces well for many decades. But it makes a lot less sense now," Austin said in a statement.

He added that, “when we use land for military purposes, at home or abroad, we commit to being good stewards of that resource. Closing Red Hill meets that commitment.”

Nearly 6,000 people, mostly those living in military housing at or near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam were sickened, seeking treatment for nausea, headaches, rashes and other ailments. And 4,000 military families were forced out of their homes and are in hotels.

Lauren Wright remembers her skin peeling, feeling nauseous and vomiting. Her symptoms disappeared only when she stopped drinking, showering and washing dishes with her home’s water.

Since early December, Wright, her sailor husband and their three children ages 7 to 17 have been among the thousands of military families living in Honolulu hotels paid for by the Navy so they can have clean water.

“I am happy because it is a step in the right direction. It should have happened a long time ago,” Wright said. “Hopefully, they don’t drag their feet and it moves quickly so another spill or leak doesn’t happen again.”

She said water at home still has a sheen and smell. The Wright family hopes to find a new home and said she and her family won't be drinking the water, even after officials sign off on its safety.

“My plan is not to use the water, or if we have to use it very, very little. I will not be drinking it, cooking with it," she said. ”We’ve been looking at home filtration systems that we could use, but I don’t trust it. I don’t even want to bathe in it. I don’t want to brush our teeth with it because I don’t trust the water.”

Austin spoke with Hawaiʻi government leaders on Monday to inform them of the decision, which he said will protect the population and the environment, and will also lay the groundwork for a more secure military fueling system.

The Pentagon said it will move to a more dispersed fueling system for military ships and aircraft in the Indo-Pacific. Based on the new assessment, the expanded system will be more cost-effective and provide greater security by spreading the fuel supply more broadly across the region.

The new plan, laid out in recommendations delivered to Austin by a study group, would increase the fuel contracts that the U.S. has with other territories and nations in the Indo-Pacific, and add several more tanker ships that are based at sea. There are currently less than a dozen tanker ships, so several more would have to be built.

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U.S. Navy
Lt. Cmdr. Blake Whittle, fuel department director, NAVSUP Fleet Logistics Center Pearl Harbor, briefs Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Operational Energy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Defense Logistics Agency Energy Commander, Director of Operational Energy Policy and staff during a Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility tour. (FILE: Aug. 26, 2019)

An assessment team that had been studying how to make the tanks safe to operate, will now shift and determine how to shut the tanks down and remove the fuel in an environmentally safe way. The team must report back to Austin by the end of April with recommendations.

After the facility can operate again, the defueling will begin and the process is expected to take about a year, meaning it would be finished some time next year. Austin has asked the Navy secretary to plan a budget for all necessary corrective action for any prior fuel releases from the facility.

Austin said the department will also work with state, national and local leaders to clean up the contamination and consider other uses for the property after the fueling plant is closed. And the military will also provide health care to the families and workers affected.

U.S. Rep. Kaialiʻi Kahele said the military must also make sure it cleans up the contaminated aquifer underneath the fuel tanks. The Navy's water system and Honolulu's municipal water utility use that aquifer.

“At this point, the extent of contamination and environmental damage is not yet known. We know fuel continues to drip, as we speak, from the rock formations into our freshwater aquifer right now,” Kahele said in a statement.

The tanks can hold 250 million gallons (1.1 billion liters) of fuel, and they are at less than half capacity right now. Officials said that 13 of the 20 tanks have fuel in them, two are permanently closed and five are being repaired.

The tanks are connected to underground pipelines that send fuel about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) to Pearl Harbor and to ships and planes used by the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy.

The Navy hasn’t determined how the petroleum got in the water. Officials are investigating a theory that jet fuel spilled from a ruptured pipe last May and somehow entered a fire suppression system drain pipe. They suspect fuel then leaked from the second pipe on Nov. 20, sending it into the drinking water well.

Weeks after the leak was discovered, Hawaiʻi state officials and members of Congress began to demand the shutdown of the facility.

The Navy in early February appealed the state's closure order, and at the time Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said the appeal would give the military time “to make evidence-based and transparent decisions.”

Kirby on Monday said the department realizes the closure of the fuel complex will not be a quick fix.

“We have work to do,” Kirby said. “But we do believe that this decision by the Secretary today marks a significant first step in the path forward.”

The announcement was praised by Hawaiʻi's congressional delegation, and by local leaders such as Gov. David Ige who called it "great news for the people of Hawaiʻi."

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono said she has been encouraging the Pentagon to make that shutdown decision for weeks.

“I have said from day one that ensuring the health and safety of the residents of Oʻahu is my top priority and I share the community’s big sigh of relief with this news,” said Hirono, who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“There will be challenges ahead, but make no mistake: Red Hill will be shut down,” said U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, in a statement. “In order to implement this decision, we’re going to have to provide additional resources and hold DoD’s feet to the fire through congressional oversight..”

Click here for more Hawaiʻi Public Radio coverage of the Navy Red Hill fuel storage facility.

The Associated Press reporter Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

The Associated Press is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering, supplying a steady stream of news to its members, international subscribers and commercial customers. Founded in 1846, AP is neither privately owned nor government-funded; instead, it's a not-for-profit news cooperative owned by its American newspaper and broadcast members.
Sophia McCullough is HPR's digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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