Pentagon shutting down fuel tank facility in Hawaii that leaked into drinking water

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan at the Rayburn House Office building on Capitol Hill on September 29, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday directed the Navy to permanently close a fuel storage facility in Hawaii that leaked petroleum into a drinking water system for 93,000 people late last year. 

“After close consultation with senior civilian and military leaders, I have decided to defuel and permanently close the Red Hill bulk fuel storage facility in Hawaii,” Austin said in a statement released Monday

Austin ordered Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro and U.S. Indo Pacific Command head Admiral John Aquilino “to take all steps necessary” to shutter the facility at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Honolulu, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby later told reporters. 

Austin said the effort will be a “multi-step process,” during which the Defense Department will work closely with the Hawaii Department of Health and with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  

The directive caps a somewhat contentious back and forth between defense officials and Hawaii’s government leaders after fuel leaked from tanks at the storage facility in November and contaminated Pearl Harbor’s drinking water, sickening nearly 6,000 people, most of whom lived in military housing.  

The aging tanks had been built during World War II and were used to store fuel for ships and aircraft to be refueled at Pearl Harbor. 

Hawaii officials quickly issued an emergency order for the Navy to drain the fuel tanks and not use them again until it can prove it can do so safely. The service initially said it would comply but then in February decided to fight the directive, angering state leaders.  

Austin’s decision on Monday is based on a “thorough review of the facility’s long-term future,” Kirby said, adding that the defueling “will probably take somewhere within 12 months or so” to fully drain and close it. 

Department of Defense (DOD) leaders “remain very, very focused on this issue and the impact it’s had on families, communities, and of course, our responsibilities in both national security and being good stewards of our resources and the environment,” Kirby said.  

The Navy will now work to defuel Red Hill and reposition the fuel to locations on land and fueling ships based at sea. Kirby said the move will better disperse fuel which will allow the U.S. military “to meet future challenges in the Pacific region while ensuring environmental stewardship and protecting the population.” 

An assessment team that had already been sent to Red Hill to figure out how to make the facility operational again will “shift their focus” to figure out how to go about the defueling, Kirby explained. That report is due to Austin by the end of April. 

The Navy secretary and the Defense Logistics Agency head then must provide an action plan no later than May 31 to safely and quickly drain tanks at the facility, which Austin called “the right thing to do.” 

“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 wrote. 

The Pentagon has also committed to lessening the impacts of the November incident, plans on restoring safe drinking water to all affected residents and will provide sampling and testing “to ensure the continued safety of the drinking water,” Kirby added. 

“The impact of families, obviously, is foremost on everybody’s mind and I don’t want to speak for the Navy — they’re working very, very hard to get these families back safely to their homes and to take care of them where they are,” Kirby said.  

In addition, DOD will “complete environmental mitigation efforts” for all areas affected by the leak “and continue to engage the community on land use” to address any future contamination concerns. 

Kirby could not offer a cost estimate for the entire effort.  

The Associated Press, which was the first to report on the closure, was told Austin spoke with Hawaii government leaders on Monday to inform them of the decision. 

Following news of the plan to shutter Red Hill, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said he welcomed the announcement and that the agency “is committed to working collaboratively with our state and federal partners to ensure clean drinking water for the people of O’ahu.” 

Del Toro, meanwhile, said the Navy “fully supports” Austin’s decision. 

“As we are committed to protecting all of the residents of Hawaii, the environment, and the security of our nation, this plan will be developed and implemented in a responsible and safe manner that complies with environment laws and best practices,” he said in a statement.  

Tags Hawaii John Kirby Lloyd Austin Michael Regan

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