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Health department prepares as Navy set to drain Red Hill fuel lines

DoD Simulates Spill Recovery at Red Hill
Shannon Haney/Commander Navy Region Hawaiʻi
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JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaiʻi (Sept. 22, 2022) - Red Hill control room operators monitor fuel levels and communicate over handheld radios during a spill response exercise on Sept. 22, 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Shannon R. Haney)

The Navy is preparing to “unpack” or drain the fuel lines at its Red Hill bulk fuel storage facility. It’s the first step in permanently draining the massive underground installation.

Kathleen Ho, deputy environmental health director for the state Department of Health, estimates there are about 1 million gallons of fuel still in the pipelines.

Ho expects the unpacking to take approximately six days once it starts. The Navy says unpacking will begin Monday, Oct. 17.

"There are three pipelines. What we want them to do is drain the pipelines. It's like a straw in a cup. So we want them to take it all out so that they can repair the pipelines to begin the process of defueling the tanks," Ho told HPR.

Health officials have reviewed the Navy's plan and sent it back with some comments, Ho says.

"It's a conditional approval, so they cannot really unpack until they fulfill all the obligations in our comments," she said. "Some of the comments that we asked is for a site visit to ensure that the drains and things have been sealed, so that if in case there's a release that it doesn't go to our aquifer."

Ho says the health department still needs to receive the proper documentation from the Navy to confirm it's ready to unpack the pipelines.

She says the department paid a visit to the site last week and has been practicing drills alongside the Navy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in preparation for a worst-case scenario.

"What keeps me up at night is really, it's the unpacking, the defueling — but also, for me, it's the health of our aquifer," Ho said. "We really need to remediate the aquifer, and not allow any more contamination into the aquifer because this aquifer is our primary aquifer and it needs to last us for many generations."

This interview aired on The Conversation on Oct. 11, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

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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