Hawaii’s Dept of Health says it will reject the U.S. Navy’s plan to remove millions of gallons of jet fuel from the Red Hill bulk fuel storage facility, a massive underground tank complex on Oahu where a 19,000-gallon spill last November contaminated a nearby water supply well serving 93,000 residents.

Leaders of the agency, which holds permitting authority over the World War II-era facility located 100 ft above the island’s primary drinking water aquifer, told a July 19 hearing of state legislators that the defueling plan lacked detail in several key areas. The Navy’s plan, released on June 30,  targets 2024 for  completion of the process.

“The highly anticipated defueling plan was disappointing,” said Kathy Ho, department deputy director of environmental health. She said the Navy had failed to address seven elements identified in a state-issued emergency order that halted operations at Red Hill earlier this year. 

Ho indicated that more information is needed on specific operational aspects, timelines, and other issues, as well as regulatory review time to ensure the operation to remove approximately 100 million gallons of fuel remaining at the facility is carried out as quickly as possible without further risk to Oahu’s citizens and environment. 

“We need the Navy to feel the same sense of urgency that we feel,” Ho said, adding that safely defueling and decommissioning Red Hill’s 20 12.5-million-gallon fuel tanks “will be in the best interests of everyone.”

Noting that the Navy understands department concerns, Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett, Navy Region Hawaii commander defended the plan to the legislators, calling it “a framework” to safely meet the deadline for defueling. He said many plan aspects were still in the design phase, but promised to submit a more detailed plan in September. Defueling operations cannot begin without state agency approval.


“Cascading failures”

Carved into a hillside overlooking Pearl Harbor during the early 1940s, Red Hill's tanks each are contains 250-ft-high, 100-ft-dia. steel-lined and encased in concrete. Three pipelines connect the tanks to fueling piers at Pearl Harbor via a 2.5-mile-long concrete tunnel.

Historical data compiled by the Sierra Club of Hawaii indicate that the facility has leaked at least 180,000 gallons of fuel over the past 80 years. A 27,000-gallon spill from a single tank in January 2014 led to a 20-year federal-state agreement to study ways to improve facility infrastructure and safeguard Oahu’s water supply from future fuel releases.

A Navy investigation determined that the November 2021 spill resulted from preventable “cascading failures” in training, response and incident followup that began six months earlier, when an improper fuel transfer inside a maintenance tunnel resulted in a pressure surge and rupture of two piping joints. 

On November 20, the Navy says, a tunnel vehicle inadvertently struck a valve on the pipeline, which had apparently sagged under the fuel’s weight. Although the Navy initially claimed less than 600 gallons of fuel was released and contained quickly with no impact to the drinking water system, the investigations found the spill actually unfolded over more than a day.

The Navy later found that nearly 20,000 gallons had poured into a PVC retention pipeline that is part of Red Hill’s fire suppression system. Some fuel spilled through a floor drain where sump pumps had activated, channeling it to a supply well for the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system.

Military families living near Red Hill soon began reporting detectable petroleum taste, odor and sheen in their water, as well as medical symptoms associated with consumption of contaminated water. More than 3,000 residents were forced from their homes. The department  placed the entire 93,000-user water system under a contamination advisory that remained in place for three months.

According to the Navy, about 4,700 gallons of fuel from the November spill remains in soil, rock, and water beneath the maintenance tunnel. Existing monitoring wells indicate no contamination in the aquifer, but the Navy says it is expanding the monitoring network and creating a groundwater capture zone to prevent migration of fuel away from the site.


Shaping a strategy

Earlier this year, the Navy commissioned engineering firm Simpson Gumpertz & Heger to lead an independent assessment of the Red Hill facility. Based on its recommendations, the Navy’s five-phase defueling strategy calls for both routine and operation-specific infrastructure repairs, installation of bypass lines and other work, much of which must be carried out while fuel remains in the tanks.

The longest phase of the plan—preparing and modifying existing system elements for defueling—is estimated to take 17 months to complete.

Fleet Civil Engineer Rear Adm. Dean VanderLey told state legislators that the additional repairs will “add resilience to the system,” such as increasing bracing of the lines to better withstand pressure during defueling.

The Navy’s plan recognizes that the specialized nature of the repairs could be affected by current supply chain issues, “as the materials and components are non-standard dimension piping uniquely manufactured for Red Hill and must be custom fabricated off-island.” Integrating design and construction processes, the plan adds, offers the best way to manage such long-lead items, “in order to identify unique components, including the materials and specifications, early in the execution of a contracts.”

Bennett added that as the scope of repairs comes into focus, the Navy will work with state and federal regulators to complete defueling sooner than the current plan’s December 2024 completion date.

“Where prudent and where possible, we will look for opportunities to definitely accelerate our timeline,” he said. “But we can’t do it at the cost of safety.”

In November, the Navy expects to deliver a plan for permanent closure of the facility, to be implemented after the defueling operation is complete.

Despite agency reservations on the current defueling plan, Ho expressed hope that the next version will provide sufficient detail to receive approval and allow defueling to move forward.

But, she added, the agency “will continue to hold the Navy accountable for the safe defueling of this pipeline as quickly as possible.