Navy to take over Hawaii fuel facility closure operations in spring
Stars and Stripes November 15, 2023
FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — The Pentagon announced Tuesday that a newly created task force will take the lead this spring in closing the defunct underground fuel storage facility in Hawaii responsible for widespread water contamination two years ago.
Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett, commander of Navy Region Hawaii, will head Navy Closure Task Force-Red Hill while continuing in his current position.
“Dual hatting the Commander enables operational and reputational synergy for the execution of closure and remediation actions, while also leveraging the Commander’s position in the community to continue rebuilding trust with the State of Hawaii and the local community of Oahu,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement Tuesday.
Joint Task Force-Red Hill, the Department of Defense entity overseeing the emptying of 104 million gallons of fuel from the World War II-era Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, is expected to complete its work in the first few months of 2024.
The Navy task force is slated to take charge of the closure operations on April 1, according to a supplemental defueling plan issued by the DOD on Tuesday.
Putting the Navy in charge of closure brings the service full circle in the Red Hill saga.
For decades, the Navy operated the Red Hill facility, which lies only a few miles outside Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, maintaining all the while that the massive underground tanks were crucial to national security and posed no risk to the environment.
The tanks and piping, however, sprung numerous leaks throughout those years, and jet fuel from a leak in November 2021 made its way into one of three wells used by the Navy for a water distribution system that served thousands of people living in military communities on and near the joint base.
A Navy investigation into the spill released in July 2022 described a litany of Navy shortcomings that led to the disaster. Among them was a culture of ignoring proper procedures, poor training and supervision, ineffective command and control and a lack of timely, accurate reporting of problems and defects.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in March 2022 ordered the facility permanently closed.
“Joint Task Force-Red Hill and Navy Closure Task Force-Red Hill will conduct a tightly-coordinated transition of command-and-control responsibilities to ensure seamless continuity of all health, safety, and environmental protection operations at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility as facility closure begins,” Brendan Owens, assistant secretary of defense for energy installations and environment, said Tuesday in a news release by Joint Task Force-Red Hill.
As of Friday, the task force had emptied almost 90 million gallons of fuel from the facility via gravity into tanker ships moored at the joint base. The fuel is being sent to San Diego, Subic Bay in the Philippines, the Port of Singapore and a pair of depots in Hawaii.
About 99.9% of the fuel will be drained that way; roughly 60,000 gallons must be drained by other means.
Joint Task Force-Red Hill expects it will complete that work by March, the news release said.
The Navy task force will have to drain the last bit of fuel, approximately 4,000 gallons, by destroying and disassembling piping, according to the release.
The task force “will also remove the pipelines and the sludge in the bottoms of the tanks (approximately 28,000 gallons) and will remove any unknown quantities of residual fuel or related products in the facility until the [facility] is permanently closed,” the release said.
Navy Region Hawaii is “prepared for a seamless transition,” Barnett said in the release.
“Navy has served proudly as part of the JTF, and we will build upon its good work and bring with us the knowledge and processes developed, to ensure the same discipline and transparency as we do the work of closing Red Hill,” he said.
Once the facility is fully closed, the Navy task force will “continue long-term environmental remediation and aquifer restoration efforts in coordination with state and federal stakeholders in order to protect public health and the environment, while continuing to rebuild trust with the State of Hawaii and the local community of Oahu,” the supplemental plan states.