Joint Task Force-Red Hill communications directorate personnel climb a ladder in the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, Halawa, Hawaii, on Sept. 14, 2023.

Joint Task Force-Red Hill communications directorate personnel climb a ladder in the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, Halawa, Hawaii, on Sept. 14, 2023. (Sgt. Kyler Chatman/U.S. Army)

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it has approved the military’s plan to defuel the Navy’s underground Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, set to begin Oct. 16.

Joint Task Force Red Hill, the military organization formed in September 2022 to remove the fuel from Red Hill’s massive underground tanks, crafted its Defueling Preparedness Report outlining how it plans to proceed with safe defueling.

The stakes are high. The tanks currently store 104 million gallons of fuel and sit just 100 feet above a critical aquifer most of Honolulu depends on for drinking water. Local health officials have called the World War-II era Red Hill facility a “time bomb“ that threatens Oahu’s water supply.

“EPA’s approval of the joint task force report is a significant milestone in the process to safely defuel Red Hill,“ EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator Martha Guzman said in a Tuesday media release. “This decision reflects our collaborative efforts with Hawaii Department of Health to work with the Department of Defense on ensuring the closure of the facility and protection of the area’s drinking water. This work is critical to safeguarding public health and the environment on Oahu.”

Navy officials for years insisted that Red Hill was safe. But in November 2021 jet fuel from the facility leaked into the Navy’s Oahu water system, which serves 93,000 people, including military families and civilians in former military housing areas. After several months of resisting a Hawaii state emergency order to drain the tanks, in March 2022 Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the military would defuel and permanently shutter the facility.

The military also acknowledged that despite previous assertions the aging World War II-era facility was safe, it had actually fallen into deep disrepair and that much of its infrastructure — including the pipelines connecting the tanks to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam — would require extensive repairs before the fuel could be safely removed without risking more spills and further threats to the aquifer.

In June the Navy, EPA and the DOH signed a federal consent order on Red Hill, in which the EPA required JTF-RH to submit the Defueling Preparedness Report prior to the start of defueling.

The report certifies that all repairs, operational changes and training have been completed as prescribed under the DOD’s defueling plan and that all repairs have gone through proper third-party quality assurance verification.

In the EPA’s news release, the agency also said that Navy Region Hawaii has “updated its Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure Plan to EPA’s satisfaction“ and that the EPA had approved JTF-RH’s facility response plan. According to the release, EPA personnel “will be onsite and on-call for the duration of the operation to provide technical assistance and monitor for any anomalies in the defueling process.”

JTF-RH now awaits approval from the DOH to move forward. DOH officials said in a statement last week that they are reviewing JTF Red Hill’s responses to its comments on the defueling operational plans submitted the week before and that “the DOH remains on track to approve defueling by Oct. 11, 2023, as specified in the JTF’s Defueling Integrated Master Schedule (IMS ), which DOH conditionally approved on June 23, 2023.”

JTF-RH’s mission will end after it removes the 104 million gallons of fuel in the tanks, but the Navy’s long-term remediation and shutdown of the facility is expected to take years.

(c)2023 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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