Contractors with the firm U.S. Ecology dig up earth contaminated with diesel fuel at the Maui Space Surveillance Complex in Maui, Hawaii, March 3, 2023.

Contractors with the firm U.S. Ecology dig up earth contaminated with diesel fuel at the Maui Space Surveillance Complex in Maui, Hawaii, March 3, 2023. (U.S. Space Force)

FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — Excavation of soil contaminated by diesel fuel at a Space Force mountaintop observatory on Maui began Thursday after a weeklong delay due to heavy winds and rain.

The work plan for the excavation, approved by the Hawaii Department of Health, calls for an initial phase during which up to 200 cubic yards of earth will be dug up at the Maui Space Surveillance Complex, the Air Force said in a news release Friday.

About 700 gallons of diesel fuel spilled Jan. 29 at the site, which sits atop the 10,000-foot summit of Haleakala, a dormant volcano.

The spill came from a malfunctioning float in the fuel tank for the site’s generator that is used during power outages of the grid. Officials believe the float was damaged by a lightning strike.

The Space Force uses several telescopes in the complex to track satellites and space debris.

Samples of the soil will be sent for testing to determine that it has been excavated to a depth that captures all the diesel fuel, the Air Force said.

All the soil from those test samples, as well as the mass of earth removed, will be stored, cleaned and returned to the ground, according to the approved plan.

Hawaiians regard Haleakala’s summit as sacred and that no soil or stones should be removed from the site.

“We recognize the cultural significance and sensitivity of the site and are working closely with native Hawaiian organizations and various governmental agencies as we carefully work through our remediation plan,” Col. Marc Brock, commander of Space Delta 2, said in the release.

The Maui-based 15th Space Surveillance Squadron, which operates the complex, is part of Space Delta 2.

The excavation is being done by U.S. Ecology, a hazardous-material remediation firm with a branch in Hawaii.

The Space Force consulted local Hawaiian cultural and community groups in the wake of the spill, mindful of backlash against the Navy for a fuel spill in late 2021 that contaminated groundwater near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

That jet fuel leak on Oahu came from the Navy’s World War II-era Red Hill underground fuel storage facility and led to the temporary relocation of thousands of residents living in military communities on and near the joint base.

Last fall, while Navy officials were prepping the Red Hill tanks for the site’s permanent closure, toxic firefighting foam was accidently released at the facility.

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Wyatt Olson is based in the Honolulu bureau, where he has reported on military and security issues in the Indo-Pacific since 2014. He was Stars and Stripes’ roving Pacific reporter from 2011-2013 while based in Tokyo. He was a freelance writer and journalism teacher in China from 2006-2009.

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