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DOH approves Navy's plans to remove sitting fuel from Red Hill

SECNAV Carlos Del Toro  Tours Red Hill underground fuel storage facility
Capt. Jereal Dorsey/Office of the Secretary of the Navy
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FILE - Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Hawaiʻi on Jun. 13, 2022. (U.S. Navy Photo by Capt. Jereal Dorsey)

The first phase of defueling the U.S. Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility is removing about 1 million gallons of fuel currently sitting in the pipes. This process, unpacking, is supposed to begin in the coming weeks.

The state Department of Health conditionally approved the Navy’s plan on Oct. 4, following meetings, discussions and observation of a dry spill run in September.

"The No. 1 priority for the Department of Health is to ensure the safe defueling of the pipelines, every moment that the fuel remains in the pipelines and the tanks could lead to a catastrophic release which would forever impact the citizens of Hawaiʻi," DOH Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathleen Ho said Friday. "In that respect, we will continue to ask for and work towards a safe defueling of the tanks and the pipelines."

The unpacking will occur in three pipelines through a process called gravity draining.

DOH Acting Program Manager for the Solid and Hazardous Waste Branch Lene Ichinotsubo said unpacking by gravity drain is sort of like emptying a straw into a cup.

It’s required before the Department of Defense can begin repairs on the World War II-era facility.

“We really need to remove that fuel so that the repairs can be done for the purposes of defueling,” Ichinotsubo said Friday.

Repairs are necessary to prevent or minimize impacts from a pressure surge, which occurred in May 2021.

“As far as repairs are going, we are focused on the repairs that are needed for the defueling process, if there's identifications of repairs that are outside of this scope, that's not our focus at this point," Ichinotsubo said.

The unpacked fuel — which has been sitting there since last year when the facility was shut down — will either go to an above-ground tank at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam or a fuel oil barge, or YON, at Hotel Pier.

The DOD estimates it will completely defuel Red Hill by June 2024.

“This is a positive step toward defueling and shutting down Red Hill,” U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said in a release. “DoD must continue to work with state officials and community leaders as quickly as possible. There’s no turning back, and there’s no time to waste.”

Last month, the U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin selected Rear Adm. John Wade to lead the Joint Task Force Red Hill team, which will manage the defueling.

“The approval of this plan is a critical step toward permanently closing Red Hill,” U.S. Sen. Mazie K. Hirono said in a release. “I have urged leaders at the Defense Department including Secretary Austin and JTF Red Hill Commander Wade to begin the defueling process as soon as is safely possible. Transparency and collaboration have been essential in this process so far, and will continue to be as we work together to quickly and safely defuel and close Red Hill.”

Read the U.S. Navy's Red Hill Pipeline Unpacking plan slideshow.

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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