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Navy wants public input on how to use Red Hill tanks after defueling

Hawaii Tainted Water red hill meeting 110122
Audrey McAvoy/AP
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AP
Meredith Berger, assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment, speaks at a news conference at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaiʻi on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, next to Navy Region Hawaiʻi Commander Rear Adm. Steve Barnett, center, and Capt. Cameron Geertsema, the commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Pacific, right. The Navy said it will ask the public how it should use a fuel storage facility in the hills above Pearl Harbor once it has finished draining petroleum from its massive storage tanks. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)

The Navy on Tuesday said it will ask the public how it should use a fuel storage facility in the hills above Pearl Harbor once it has finished draining petroleum from its massive storage tanks.

The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility leaked petroleum into Pearl Harbor's tap water last year and sickened nearly 6,000 people, mostly those living in military housing.

The Navy said it would seek permission from the state Department of Health to leave the 20 tanks inside the hillside where they were built during World War II. Each tank measures 100 feet in diameter and 250 feet in height.

Fourteen of the 20 tanks still have fuel inside of them.

Meredith Berger, assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment, told reporters at a news conference that it would be safer for the environment to leave the tanks in place once they are cleaned.

The Navy also said leaving them there would allow them to be put to another use. The Navy hasn't determined what they will be used for yet, only that they won't be used to store fuel again.

The Navy plans to ask the public for ideas through meetings and webinars. One possibility is to use the tanks to store water for a pumped hydroelectric power facility.

“We’re very interested to hear what we can find and we’ll go through a process to make sure that we’re soliciting those good ideas,” Berger said.

Meredith Berger, assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment
The Conversation - Nov. 2, 2022

The Navy is closing the facility in response to an order from the Department of Health after jet fuel spilled from the facility into a drinking water well in November. It expects to finish draining fuel from the tanks in July 2024. Berger said it will take another three years after they are drained to close the facility. That sets a date in 2027.

Hawaiʻi officials are worried that last year's leak, in addition to poisoning people, also contaminated an aquifer that Honolulu's water utility relies on to supply drinking water to 400,000 people on Oʻahu. That comes on top of contamination from other recorded leaks over the decades.

The aquifer in question is located just 100 feet (30 meters) below the facility.

Capt. Cameron Geertsema, the commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Pacific, said the Navy has removed some contaminated soil already by using an excavator to dig it up and dispose of it as a hazardous substance.

He said the Navy is working with private engineering firms to explore other decontamination methods, potentially including soil vapor extraction. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that involves drilling extraction wells into contaminated soil at least 3 feet (1 meter) below the surface but above the water table. A blower or vacuum pump attached to the well pulls air and vapors through the soil and above the ground for treatment.

Geertsema said the Navy will be testing other methods within the year.

“The number one priority is is to remediate and remove any of the contamination in the soil right now,” he said.

The military is committed to that, from U.S. Pacific Fleet Adm. Samuel Papapro “all the way up” to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, he said.

The price tag to clear the tanks and close the facility is still up in the air.

"The most precise cost that you'll see coming forward will come with an engineering estimate that comes after the Department of Health has identified a way forward," Berger said.

Kathleen Ho, the state Department of Health's deputy director for environmental health, said her agency will review the Navy’s plan with a focus on ensuring that the facility is closed quickly and safely.

“Any closure plan must guarantee that the Navy will never reuse the Red Hill tanks for fuel or for other substances that threaten our aquifer,” she said.

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