Joint Task Force-Red Hill  Response Director, U.S. Navy Capt. Michael O’Beirne, describes protective measures installed in the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, to regulators from the U.S Environmental Protection Agency and Hawaii Department of Health, Halawa, Hawaii, Aug. 24, 2023.

Joint Task Force-Red Hill Response Director, U.S. Navy Capt. Michael O’Beirne, describes protective measures installed in the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, to regulators from the U.S Environmental Protection Agency and Hawaii Department of Health, Halawa, Hawaii, Aug. 24, 2023. (Randall E. Corpuz/U.S. Army)

(Tribune News Service) — The military entity charged with removing 104 million gallons of aviation and marine fuels from the Navy's controversial, underground Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Halawa marks a milestone Monday.

That day, Joint Task Force-Red Hill — composed of members of various U.S. armed services — will begin "repacking" operations to fill empty pipelines that snake for miles under and through the World War II-era facility with more fuel in order to remove any air.

That work will pave the way for gravity-based defueling of the site's main underground storage tanks by Oct. 16, according to Vice Adm. John Wade, who commands the task force.

"We are on schedule to start defueling in the middle of October," Wade told a group of news reporters Friday following a media tour of the facility.

He added that the gravity method "is not fully dependent on electricity."

"While many of the valves do require electrical power, some are hydraulically generated, some are manual; we'll have personnel at all of the valves," he said.

Wade said defueling is scheduled for completion by Jan. 19 and would be conducted with the utmost care.

"That is why I'm here," said Wade, "and why we've implemented a mitigation strategy to identify all of the threats and vulnerabilities and implement the strategy to reduce those risks."

To reduce risk, the joint task force says it intends to fill the lines with fuel from the site's upper tank farm, then move that fuel into the lines in small increments and in a deliberate, controlled manner.

The repacking process is expected to take several days.

"It is yet another opportunity to test the integrity of the system as we gradually fill those lines to ensure that all the valves, all the flanges, everything works to standard," Wade said. "If not, we can back the fuel down and take corrective action and make sure that everything is ready to go."

But Joint Task Force-Red Hill — whose primary mission is to defuel the entire site — won't stop there.

"After gravity defueling we still have to get after residual fuel," he said, adding that 100,000 to 400,000 gallons of fuel will likely remain in the tanks. "So, we've got to integrate with the Navy on how we're going to get every last drop out."

During the tour of the Red Hill facility — much of it hundreds of feet below the surface, near the mouth of Halawa Valley — members of the task force noted the point where, on May 6, 2021, a pipeline filled with JP-5 jet fuel failed, following what was described as operator error that allowed a surge to build in that line prior to its rupture.

Soon after, 19,000 gallons of jet fuel spilled.

The media tour, however, did not include another point at which a similar fuel leak occurred later that year.

On Nov. 20, 2021, roughly 14,000 gallons of petroleum leaked out of the fuel storage facility and into drinking water that supplies Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and other military sites on West Oahu, detrimentally affecting hundreds of families.

Following these incidents, Brig. Gen. Michelle Link, deputy commander of the task force, said independent engineering assessments were required in order to determine the facility's safety before the site could be defueled.

"The results of those assessments were consolidated and compiled into one master list," she said.

Out of that list, the task force completed 253 mandatory repairs while also receiving required conditional approvals from third-party "quality validators," the state Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Link said the repairs featured surge mitigation measures as well as pipeline integrity repairs. "And those included such things as replacing corroded pipes, supports or other valve replacement concerns," she added.

Meantime, according to the EPA, since the 2021 fuel spills at Red Hill, the Navy was required to collect environmental data to satisfy environmental monitoring requirements, as defined by state law. The Navy was also required to install groundwater monitoring wells to expand the number of locations where groundwater data is collected.

Currently, there are 23 Navy-installed monitoring wells, which include wells at the Red Hill facility or near the site, the EPA says.

In 2022 the Navy submitted a work plan to install up to 10 additional monitoring wells. Other entities, such as the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, have also installed monitoring wells in the area and had plans to install more, the EPA says.

To that end, Wade said, the facility implemented more methods and controls to prevent future fuel leaks — particularly to potable water sources.

"We've taken painstaking methods to ensure that we have containment, that we have barriers, that we have good protections for the aquifer," Wade told reporters. "But we also have controls that if we have any leaks, we can drain the fuel down and conduct repairs."

Also, Wade said more "temporary cameras" had been installed in and around the facility, to either bolster or replace antiquated, decades-old equipment.

"It makes sense from a community perspective to have an understanding of what we're doing," Wade said of the new cameras, which are remotely operated from the facility's control center. "It also aids in surveillance, to help us understand what's going on in the facility ... so we can provide 24/7 coverage of the entire pipeline, along with our roving security and fire watch personnel, so that we have boots on the ground if we have any problems."

In its effort to drain Red Hill's fuel tanks, the task force's work will be overseen by the EPA and the state Department of Health. "They will be on-site," Wade added. "In fact, they're here right now, doing a walk-through."

And he noted that Joint Task Force-Red Hill — comprising 270 personnel from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and civilian employees — continues to do its job until defueling operations have ceased.

"Right now my mission is to continue to progress, reduce risk and ensure that we're ready to defuel," Wade said.

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