Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III attends a meeting at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III attends a meeting at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. (Alexander Kubitza/U.S. Navy)

(Tribune News Service) — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin this week will visit the Navy’s underground Red Hill fuel facility as the military prepares to defuel and shut down the World War II-era fuel farm, the Pentagon announced Monday.

Austin’s trip is part of a tour of California and Hawaii. On Wednesday he will meet with service members at Naval Base Point Loma and Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California. According to a news release, in Hawaii he “will meet with some of our key allies in the Indo-Pacific “ and meet with Rear Adm. John Wade, who last week became commander of the newly formed Joint Task Force Red Hill that is responsible for defueling the Red Hill facility.

Austin ordered the defueling and permanent shutdown of the facility in March after jet fuel contaminated the Navy’s drinking water system that serves 93, 000 people on Oahu in November. The contamination affected service members and civilians living in former military housing areas.

The shutdown announcement came after Navy officials spent months fighting calls from state officials and lawmakers to shutter the facility, calling the aging fuel storage tanks critical to its operations in the Pacific. The military took the state to court and vowed to resist an emergency order from the state Department of Health to close the facility in the face of heavy public backlash.

The massive, decades-old underground storage tanks, which are collectively capable of holding up to 250 million gallons of fuel, sit just 100 feet above an aquifer that provides the majority of Honolulu’s drinking water. The facility’s location has been particularly contentious since a 2014 incident in which 27, 000 gallons of fuel leaked from one of the tanks.

The Navy’s Pacific Fleet internal investigation of the November fuel spill released in June found that the facility was in a state of profound disrepair, particularly its pipe system that transports fuel to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

The military’s initial plan for the defueling calculated extensive repairs would be needed to safely remove fuel from the facility and would take until at least December 2024 to complete the process, but this month the Department of Defense sped up its timeline in an announcement that officials now believe the process will be complete by July 2024.

Several military officials and lawmakers have toured the facility, but this will be Austin’s first visit.

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