Pentagon announces plan to empty Red Hill fuel tanks, close facility
Board of Water Supply tells HNN water conservation or mandatory restrictions still possible this summer
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Pentagon announced plans Monday to empty the Red Hill underground fuel storage tanks and permanently close the WWII-era facility to blame for an ongoing water contamination crisis that continues to displace thousands of military families.
The process of emptying the tanks and closing the facility could take a year or more, officials estimated.
The decision is an about-face for the military, which was challenging in court the state’s emergency order to empty the Red Hill fuel tanks. The facility holds more than 100 million gallons of fuel, and the military had argued that it was of strategic importance and was not imperiling Oahu’s water system.
In a news conference Monday, the governor and state Health Department applauded the Pentagon’s decision to close Red Hill but also said they would hold the military to its pledges. The Red Hill tanks sit just 100 feet above the aquifer that serves as the principal source of drinking water for Oahu.
“We cannot have national security without ensuring public health,” Gov. David Ige told reporters. “The fuel facility was built in wartime many years ago and we have much better options today.”
He noted there is no storage facility big enough on Oahu to hold the fuel in Red Hill. That means at least a portion of it will have to be pumped into fuel tankers.
State Health Director Dr. Libby Char added emptying the Red Hill fuel tanks is “not without risk” because of the potential for additional fuel leaks. “Defueling needs to be done very safely,” Char said. “We have a lot more work ahead to ensure clean drinking water in our state.”
The Pentagon’s announcement comes as the Navy continues work to clean and flush its contaminated water system, and as thousands of families are still not able to drink water from their taps.
In a statement posted online, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the “centrally-located bulk fuel storage of this magnitude likely made sense in 1943, when Red Hill was built. And Red Hill has served our armed forces well for many decades. But it makes a lot less sense now.”
He said that no later than May 31, the Secretary of the Navy and Defense Logistics Agency will provide a plan for “safe and expeditious defueling of the facility, with a completion target of 12 months.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a news conference Monday that the decision to close the facility was made following a “thorough review” of its long-term future.
“The secretary’s decision is not considered to be some kind of quick fix. We have work to do,” Kirby said, adding the Pentagon will be “fully transparent” as it takes the steps to close the facility.
He added, in response to families concerned about the potential long-term health impacts of contamination: “We owe these families our very best attention to make sure they get the medical care they need for the way in which the contamination effected their health.”
Members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation said closing Red Hill is the right thing to do.
“Pressure on the Department of Defense is why we won this battle,” said U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. “And make no mistake, it’s over. This is a win. The decision has been made.”
He added, “The how I think has to be done with a lot of engineering expertise and a lot of budget decisions that are still pending. And so the details come later.
“But for now, the decision has been made. What a huge day for Hawaii.”
The facility has a long history of fuel leaks, including one that led to the contamination of the Navy water system that serves 93,000 military and civilian customers. The crisis started around Thanksgiving, when military families started complaining of illnesses and said their water smelled like fuel.
Since then, fuel pumping at the facility has been on hold.
President Joe Biden recently signed a bill containing $100 million to drain the fuel tanks. However, lawmakers have said the total cost of shutting down the tanks is expected to be much more.
MEMO ON RED HILL’S CLOSURE:
Board of water supply chief engineer Ernie Lau told Hawaii News Now he applauds the community efforts.
“It’s one of the best gifts a Monday morning that I could get,” said Lau.
He doubts defueling could begin before summer when water demand goes up. Three Oahu pumps near Red Hill are shut down to prevent the Navy’s contamination from spreading to the public’s water and Lau warns that voluntary or even mandatory water restrictions could still happen.
“If demand is greater than supply then we have no choice, but to implement mandatory restrictions to curb demand to make it fit with the available supply,” said Lau.
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