The Department of Defense is grappling with what it will take to remove the jet fuel from the Red Hill underground facility in response to increasing political pressure to address the still-unfolding Honolulu water crisis.

About 92,000 people who rely on Navy water in Hawaii have been unable to use or drink it since last week when the Navy confirmed there’s petroleum in the water. The Navy’s well at Red Hill is close to an underground storage facility that includes 20 aging tanks that can hold 250 million gallons of jet fuel.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige and the entire congressional delegation on Sunday called on the Navy to suspend operations at the facility. On Monday, the Navy told reporters it had suspended operations at the fuel facility a week ago.

Environmental activist Kyle Kajihiro, board member of Hawaii Peace and Justice, said calls for suspension of Red Hill operations are welcome but “fall short of the urgent steps needed to prevent a much larger disaster.”

NEX Navy Exchange parking lot location as staff handles water distribution.
Military families and others who rely on Navy water have had to use bottled water after their water tested positive for petroleum. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“This is a full blown emergency which has been slowly developing for months and years,” he said. “Our elected officials need to demand that fuel be removed from the Red Hill tanks while the Navy tries to figure out what went wrong.”

The Hawaii House of Representatives on Monday called on the Navy to decommission the facility and move the fuel to a different location. Ige’s Department of Health issued an emergency order late Monday calling for the Navy to defuel the site.

The question is where the fuel will go.

The Navy has for years resisted relocating the fuel in part because doing so would be extremely expensive. Constructing a new jet fuel facility to replace the aging tanks at Red Hill could cost between $4 billion and $10 billion and could take until 2051, according to a 2018 analysis commissioned by the Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command.

During a hearing last week, U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele asked the Navy what it would take logistically to shut down the fuel facility.

Kahele’s office shared the Navy’s emailed responses Monday that said shutting down the Red Hill fuel storage facility would involve DLA Energy — the logistics division of the Department of Defense — contracting tankers to go to Pearl Harbor to receive the fuel.

The Navy said DLA Energy was still in the process of calculating how much time it would take to remove the fuel. The Navy told Kahele that the timeline for removal would depend on how long it took to contract tankers, position and sequence them and upload fuel to each of them.

DLA Energy would also need to come up with a location for storing the fuel. The Navy told the Hawaii congressman that some options include leasing commercial space, keeping the fuel afloat in the ocean and placing the fuel in an alternate defense fuel support point, if space is available.

The Navy also shared with Kahele a PowerPoint presentation dated Nov. 15 that concluded, “The water continues to be safe to drink.”

Within two weeks, that was no longer the case.

During a press conference Monday, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro apologized for the “horrible, horrible tragedy” of the water crisis but did not commit to shutting down the facility.

“We look at all options, and all options are on the table certainly,” he said.

The Navy has said the underground storage facility is critical to national security and the safety of Hawaii, which is home to Indo-Pacific Command, the branch of the military that oversees operations throughout the Pacific and Indian oceans. The Pacific has become an increasingly important U.S. strategic priority in light of China’s efforts to extend its influence in the region.

Wayne Tanaka, head of the Oahu Sierra Club, an environmental group that has long lobbied to remove the jet fuel tanks at Red Hill, said despite the cost, removal should be possible.

“The most powerful Navy in the world should be able to transfer fuel expeditiously whether it is ship-to-ship or ship-to-land and if they are not able to do so they should be finding people who can ASAP,” he said.

Red Hill Alternatives

A 2018 analysis by Virginia-based consultant Austin Brockenbrough and Associates reviewed a dozen different locations on Oahu and concluded the best place for relocating the tanks was Kapukaki, a location just uphill of the existing facility.

The relocation would involve building 40 new tanks to replace the existing 20, and could cost between $100 million and $250 million per tank, and would be estimated to take at least 40 years.

“Constructing a replacement for Red Hill is a project of extraordinary proportions in many ways for the DOD,” the analysis concluded, adding the Defense Department hadn’t executed a project of this magnitude since the 1940s.

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply took issue with the relocation analysis, contending in a 2018 letter that the way the study was conducted “effectively produces a decision that eliminates relocation as a likely outcome.”

The Navy said that would be the costliest of all of the options to improve the safety of the tanks. The Navy chose to go with the cheapest option for fortifying the tanks after analyzing various alternatives.

The crisis unfolding this month has also unveiled new alternatives. Lt. Gov. Josh Green reached out to Par Hawaii last week to see if the gasoline and diesel company might be able to help with the situation.

Executives at Par Hawaii, which is owned by Texas-based Par Pacific Holdings Inc., confirmed Monday the company is in talks with the Navy about potentially holding some of the fuel.

“Based on what we understand at this time, we can make available approximately 2 million barrels (84 million gallons) of storage capacity or 1/3 of the existing fuel in the Red Hill tanks,” Eric Wright, Par Hawaii’s senior vice president and lead executive said in an email.

Green said he thinks removing the fuel from underground is the only option to protect the island’s water.

“We cannot tolerate any contamination to the water and the only way we can guarantee a safe water supply is to eventually get the fuel above ground,” he said. “That appears to be our reality.”

Civil Beat reporters Christina Jedra and Nick Grube contributed reporting to this story.

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