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Navy shortens Red Hill defueling timeline, trains personnel for spill drills

SECNAV Carlos Del Toro Tours Red Hill
Capt. Jereal Dorsey/Office of the Secretary of the Navy
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Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro visits the Navy's Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility on Jun. 13, 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Capt. Jereal Dorsey)

In a new plan, the U.S. Navy says it can defuel the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility by July 2024, a five-month shorter timeline than initially predicted earlier this summer. Some of the fuel currently in drains should be removed next month.

The Department of Defense submitted an updated defueling plan on Wednesday per orders from the state Department of Health to shut down the facility. This new plan features a condensed timeline of repairs and offers more specific timeline details, which officials and agencies have criticized.

The World War II-era facility is the source of two major fuel spills last year, most recently in November 2021, which contaminated the Navy’s drinking water in and around Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

This supplemental plan in part addresses the health department’s concerns, which it made apparent when it rejected the military’s defueling outline submitted in June for lack of specifics.

This new plan is still subject to DOH approval.

“We are focused on ensuring that defueling takes place as quickly and safely as possible,” said DOH Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathleen Ho in a statement. “There is a continued threat to our aquifer and residents every day that fuel remains in the Red Hill tanks. As we review this submission, it is our full expectation that it will have the requisite amount of detail to ensure defueling work can begin.”

Red Hill, which ceased operations last year, still has about 1 million gallons of fuel sitting in its pipes. The unpacking, or draining, of this is expected to begin in October, according to the plan.

Using a gravity-flow method, the DOD estimates it'll take a few hours to drain this area.

“DOD will erect barriers to redirect any flow away from Adit 3 and the Red Hill Shaft. The first sites for the barriers are outside the elevator shafts, which will minimize the risk that any spilled fuel would collect at the bottom of an elevator shaft. The second barrier location will be immediately upslope of the wye that separates Adit 3 from the harbor tunnel and will divert any spill of fuel away from Adit 3 and the Red Hill Shaft Pump room,” the plan reads.

On Sept. 22, the Navy plans to conduct "worst case" scenario spill drills in preparation. The exercise will include other state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard.

The military has added spill response positions, and says it has "50-150 additional trained individuals to respond to a spill." Other operational changes include the plans to hire an additional 37 personnel for training, safety and maintenance operations.

“This plan represents considerable work by our DOD and Navy team along with the regulators, and we remain completely focused on the safe and expeditious defueling of the facility,” Rear Adm. Steve Barnett, commander, Navy Region Hawaiʻi, said in a statement. “As we move forward, we will continually refine and improve this plan, and keep stakeholders and the community informed throughout the process. Every action we take must protect the environment and the community.”

An internal investigation released in June detailed that missteps from a May 2021 leak led to water contamination later that year in November.

An additional supplemental defueling plan is expected later this month which will incorporate studies and analyses that were not received in time for this report, including the congressional-mandated "Fuel Transfer System Inspection Report" which assesses the pipelines and fire suppression systems at Red Hill, and two reports from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assessing Red Hill contingency response capabilities.

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.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin must quickly name a commander to a joint task force responsible for defueling the tanks.

“Shutting down Red Hill cannot be delayed. While the updated plan to close the facility sooner is a step in the right direction, DOD must make it a priority to move fast and permanently shut down Red Hill as quickly as possible," Schatz said in a statement.

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Sabrina Bodon is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Contact her at sbodon@hawaiipublicradio.org or 808-792-8252.
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