Pentagon to fight Hawaii order to drain fuel tanks that contaminated water

The Pentagon has decided it will fight Hawaii’s order to drain fuel from tanks at a storage facility following a leak that contaminated Pearl Harbor’s drinking water, a top Defense official said Monday. 

The Defense Department first said earlier this month that the Navy would comply with the emergency order from the Hawaii Department of Health to empty the underground tanks at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The order came after the facility’s leak contaminated the Navy’s drinking water system for 93,000 people, sickening numerous military families. 

But after a Monday meeting with Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) to discuss “how we can work together through some pending legal matters,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said the Pentagon would file an appeal to fight the state order. 

While Defense Department officials remain “laser-focused on addressing the Red Hill situation,” they plan to appeal the order in both federal and state court by Wednesday, Hicks said in a statement.  

“This will afford us time to make evidence-based and transparent decisions,” she said. “Despite these legal process requirements, we hope to collaborate with the State of Hawaii in a way that would allow the parties the time and space needed to reach solutions together.” 

The statement did not include reasons the military has decided to fight the order. The order was initially released in December and stipulated that the Navy must drain the fuel tanks and not use them again until it can prove it can do so safely. 

Navy officials earlier this month told lawmakers that the service would “comply” with the order to defuel the facility, with U.S. Pacific Fleet Deputy Commander Rear Adm. Blake Converse calling it a “lawful order.” 

Following the Pentagon’s announcement to appeal, Hawaii lawmakers were swift in their condemnation of the action. 

Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz (D) said the move is a “grave and unforced error that undermines public trust.” 

“Fortunately, we have civilian oversight of the military, and this inexplicable and maddening resistance to the defuel order will not succeed. They will lose in court, and they will lose in Congress,” Schatz wrote on Twitter

Rep. Ed Case (D), who represents the districts the fuel leak affected, said he strongly disagrees with the military’s decision. 

“I will do everything I can to fully effectuate the order and, if necessary, to confirm that Hawai’i and any other state is legally entitled to protect its drinking water,” Case said in a statement

Rep. Kaiali’i Kahele (D), meanwhile, called the Pentagon’s appeal “a betrayal to the people of Hawaii.” 

“There is no more precious resource than our water,” Kahele wrote on Twitter. “If they are incapable of being a good neighbor and stewards of our environment, they must shut down Red Hill. I will do everything I can to protect Hawai’i’s drinking water.” 

And Hawaii’s deputy director of environmental health, Kathleen Ho, said the department is “very disappointed” in the Navy’s decision.  

“The Navy committed to Congress and in multiple public forums that it would comply with the emergency order,” she said in a statement. “Today’s announcement that they intend to appeal the emergency order is yet another breach of trust between the Navy and the people of Hawai’i.” 

The state’s emergency order will remain in effect during the appeal process, according to the department.  

Hicks said Defense Department officials are still working to address the fuel contamination and would submit a work plan and implementation schedule for a “qualified, independent third party commercial firm” to assess Red Hill’s system integrity by April 30. The plan is due by Wednesday, as required by the emergency order. 

She also said the department “will continue to do everything that we can to protect the population, the environment, and the security of the nation” and hasn’t ruled out “the option of permanently defueling Red Hill.” 

In addition, the Pentagon is working on a separate assessment to scrutinize the distribution of its fuel reserves in the Pacific, to be completed within 60 days to “enable the Secretary of Defense to make a decision on the role of Red Hill moving forward.” 

Tags Brian Schatz David Ige Department of Defense Drinking water Ed Case Kathleen Hicks Navy

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