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Navy requests 'closure-in-place' plan for Red Hill underground fuel tanks

FILE - The entrance to Tank 19 at the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility on Jan. 19, 2019. (U.S. Navy Photo/Released)
U.S. Navy
U.S. Navy
FILE - The entrance to Tank 19 at the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility on Jan. 19, 2019. (U.S. Navy Photo/Released)

An independent contractor has recommended a closure in place for the Navy Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, an estimated $119 million project that'd take about three years once the facility is defueled.

But the Navy's plan is still up for the state Department of Health’s approval following its review of four plans for the underground storage tanks, and has already received negative criticism from the Honolulu Board of Water Supply.

“DOH is still committed to a closure plan that guarantees the tanks will never again be used for substances that could pollute our aquifer,” a spokesperson said in a written statement.

The World War II-era facility has 20 concrete fuel storage tanks that were mined into the rock, each holding about 12.5 million gallons of fuel just above the island's aquifer. The closure plan is part of a directive from the DOH's May 6 emergency order, following years of accidental fuel spills into the environment and Navy’s water system.

“The detailed analysis shows that closure in place of the Red Hill facility minimizes impacts to the environment, public health, and safety, which continue to be our highest priority,” Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations and Environment Meredith Berger said in a press release.

The Navy submitted the Jacobs Government Service Company-produced analysis of four closure plans for feasibility, schedule, cost and benefits, of which the Navy is requesting approval for a permanent “closure in place.”

This means the tanks will be drained and cleaned, but not filled. The ventilation of the tanks will be capped, but will need some maintenance in the future to prevent condensation or "organic growth," according to the report. This plan would require some other maintenance, like monitoring and periodical water drainage from the tanks, and visual evaluations.

“If closed permanently as described above, the tanks are not expected to deteriorate in the next 50-100 years,” the report says. “This conclusion is based on observations of the current condition of the tank steel linings and structural assessments of the visible anchors in the tank.”

Leslie Nelson
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The Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which has been critical of the Navy and demanded a faster defueling, has asked the DOH to deny this alternative.

“The BWS strongly opposes any tank closure proposal that does not call for the one time, safe defueling and permanent closure of the Red Hill facility,” BWS said in a statement. “Closing the tanks by either removing them from the ground or filling them with an inert material as generally required under the DOH’s rules is the only way to ensure that they can never be used or put our irreplaceable sole-source groundwater aquifer in imminent peril of contamination again.”

Once BWS has gone through the plan, the department plans to share more detailed comments.

A second alternative builds off the closure in place by preparing the tanks for non-fuel reuse. This would potentially require the installation of a protective coating, depending on what is chosen to be stored inside of the tanks. This plan is estimated to cost $223 million and take about four years following defueling.

According to a press release, the Navy will request approval for a “beneficial non-fuel reuse of the facility.” The Navy said it would engage with the community for the to-be-determined reuse.

Defueling of Red Hill is still slated for June 2024, and if the closure-in-place plan is approved, it is projected to be finished in June 2027.

“If the DOH approves beneficial non-fuel reuse for the facility as well, the DON will actively engage the Oahu community to solicit input on options and coordinate with DOH prior to finalizing the design and process for permanent ‘Closure in Place’ for Red Hill,” the Navy said in a release.

The Navy says a non-fuel reuse evaluation report will be “completed in a timely manner and will not affect the overall schedule for tank closure. A final determination on the reuse of the facility is not required in order to close the facility.”

“This important step underscores our commitment to safely close the Red Hill facility and we look forward to hearing the Hawaii Department of Health’s feedback,” Navy Region Hawaii Commander Rear Adm. Steve Barnett said. “We are hopeful for an expeditious approval of the proposal so that we can continue on our path to close Red Hill.”

A third plan offers closing up the tanks with fill material "which may not be available on-island" and would take about five years "during which time more than 50 large dump trucks per day would travel the local roads, thereby causing severe, negative impacts to the local environment and surrounding community. Significantly, this alternative does not allow beneficial non-fuel reuse of the tanks."

The fourth alternative studied removing the steel liners and filling the underground tanks, which poses a risk to disabling the surrounding area at an estimated $581 million cost over seven years.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Navy signed an initial consent agreement about how the Red Hill fuel storage facility should be shut down.

The EPA said it has done a series of inspections and investigations covering not only the fuel storage tanks, but the local system for drinking water, which supplies about 93,000 households.

Sabrina Bodon was Hawaiʻi Public Radio's government reporter.
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