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Military moves up the schedule to start defueling Red Hill to October

A Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility contractor trims a support beam during repairs on March 15, 2023. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class James Finney)
Petty Officer 3rd Class James Finney/Joint Task Force Red Hill
A Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility contractor trims a support beam during repairs on March 15, 2023. The Navy is completing repairs and upgrades before defueling. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class James Finney)

The U.S. military on Tuesday proposed an October start date for a plan to drain a World War II-era fuel tank facility that poisoned 6,000 people when it leaked jet fuel into Pearl Harbor's drinking water 18 months ago.

Fuel from the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility leaked into a U.S. Navy drinking water well supplying water to 93,000 people in 2021.

The episode poisoned about 6,000 people — mostly military personnel and their families — on and around the Oʻahu naval base. It also prompted Honolulu's water utility to shut down nearby wells that provided about 20% of the city's water supply.

After the spill, the state of Hawaiʻi ordered the military to drain and close the tanks. Last year, the military said it expected to remove fuel from Red Hill by July 2024 after it finished repairs to prevent leaks.

The military said in a news release Tuesday that it would begin removing 104 million gallons of fuel from the facility on Oct. 16 and finish by Jan. 19, 2024.

But that won’t remove all the fuel. The military said it's likely that 100,000 to 400,000 gallons would remain. It said it will propose additional plans to remove the final gallons.

"Let me make it clear, we are going to remove every single drop out of the Red Hill facility. But when you're doing a complex evolution, you have to break the project up into parts. So this phase is going to be the removal of all fuel that we can do via gravity draining," said Navy Vice Adm. John Wade, commander of Joint Task Force-Red Hill.

"What we have learned from the repairs and the enhancements and modifications is that there are pockets of fuel within the facility. There's low point drains, there's traverse pipelines, there's bends, I mean we're talking about a facility that's 3.5 miles long," Wade added.

Full interview with Navy Vice Adm. John Wade, commander of Joint Task Force-Red Hill
The Conversation - May 17, 2023

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Hawaiʻi Department of Health must sign off on the military's new plan.

Kathleen Ho, Hawaiʻi's deputy director of environmental health, said she was encouraged by the new proposal.

"We will carefully review this submission to ensure that the updated timeline and plan can be executed safely without any further risk to the environment,” Ho said in a statement.

After the fuel drains down to Pearl Harbor, the majority of the fuel will be loaded on oil tankers.

"Those tankers will then redistribute that fuel to different bulk fuel storage facilities within the United States, some on the western side of the island, also internationally, and then some of the fuel will be relocated on oilers throughout the Pacific. This will add resiliency to our fuel posture within the Pacific," Wade told HPR.

The Red Hill tanks can hold 250 million gallons of fuel but are at less than half capacity now. Thirteen of the 20 tanks have fuel in them.

A Navy investigation found a cascading series of mistakes, complacency and a lack of professionalism over the course of six months led to the 2021 fuel spill. It has yet to announce disciplinary action in response to the spill.

Read the newly released defueling plan here.

The Associated Press reporter Audrey McAvoy 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.
Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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