Exactly a year after an estimated 19,000 gallons of fuel spilled from the Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility, Hawaii health officials are imposing new deadlines on the military for the facility’s shutdown. 

The Navy must submit a plan for emptying the World War II-era fuel facility by June 30 and a plan for its permanent closure by Nov. 1, according to a second emergency order issued by the Hawaii Department of Health Friday. 

The “closure plan” must aim to shutter the troubled facility as quickly as it is safe to do so, according to the order, signed by the deputy director for environmental health, Kathy Ho.

“Defueling must occur in a manner that is evidence-driven and supported by data and studies of the Facility, and consistent with the recommendations of subject matter experts,” the order states.

Red Hill well pipe will pump up to 5 million gallons of contaminated water to 8 tanks that contain granulated carbon to filter the contaminants and then be discharged into the Halawa Stream.
The Red Hill fuel facility was built during World War II 100 feet above Oahu’s primary drinking water source. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The new order comes on the anniversary of a May 6, 2021, release that spilled fuel into a lower access tunnel at the Red Hill facility. Initially, the Navy said approximately 1,000 gallons had spilled and all but 38 gallons had been captured. Later, officials said they believe 19,000 gallons of fuel had escaped from a tank that day.

Some of that fuel allegedly made its way into a fire suppression drain line where it would sit for months. In November, that drain line was supposedly hit with a cart and burst, spewing thousands of gallons of fuel into a tunnel close to the Red Hill well.

That well served 93,000 water customers in and around Pearl Harbor. According to survey results shared this week, some 2,000 people were sickened from drinking fuel-tainted water, including children, and thousands more were displaced from their homes.

An investigation into the causes of the two leaks last year is currently under review by the Pentagon and has not yet been released to the public, according to the Navy Office of Information. Meanwhile, the displaced families have returned to their homes with assurances from the Navy and DOH that their water is safe, although many are skeptical.

In April, the facility experienced another reported leak of an estimated 30 gallons of fuel, an incident for which a Navy commander was fired.

A previous DOH emergency order issued in December left open the possibility that the Red Hill facility could be operational again after it was repaired and deemed safe. Friday’s emergency order supersedes the earlier one and orders Red Hill’s closure to be permanent.

“Our main focus is ensuring that defueling and closure operations are performed safely and expeditiously,” Ho said in a statement. “This work will have consequences for us and for future generations, and on behalf of the people and environment of Hawaii, we will hold the Navy accountable to honor its commitments.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced in March that he was ordering the permanent closure of Red Hill but said he made the decision for strategic reasons, not because of the state order. He pledged to provide a plan for the “safe and expeditious defueling of the facility” by May 31 and said that after repairs are done, defueling could take 12 months.

According to the new DOH order, the health department will have discretion on whether to approve the Red Hill closure plan in whole or in part. In reviewing it, officials will consider whether the plan includes adequate specificity about draining the facility’s 20 fuel tanks, associated pipelines and other equipment.

DOH also will assess the military’s plans for preventing and containing any fuel spills that may occur during the defueling process, according to the order. 

Once defueling begins, the Navy will have to submit weekly situation reports or briefings outlining its progress, the order said.

The Navy may contest the new emergency order during a hearing to be scheduled with a DOH hearings officer. The Navy did not provide a response to the order on Friday evening.

The Navy fought the original emergency order with legal arguments to DOH and in lawsuits that it has since dropped.

Even after it agreed to comply, the Navy almost immediately violated that order, the Department of Health said in February. The military was supposed to hire a qualified, DOH-approved independent contractor to submit paperwork on defueling Red Hill, but instead, chose a contractor on its own without prior approval. After a review, DOH said it wasn’t confident in the contractor’s independence.

Earthjustice attorney David Henkin, who represented the Sierra Club in the fight over the previous order, said in a statement that the Navy owes it to the people of Hawaii to comply with this new order and “not drag this out with legal maneuvers like last time.”

“The Red Hill Facility has already poisoned our water supply with jet fuel, depriving nearly 100,000 residents of safe drinking water in their homes for months, and the contamination remains in our aquifer, reducing the island’s water supply and raising the specter of water rationing as we head toward summer,” he said.

“We can’t afford another human and environmental catastrophe. We need to get the fuel out of Red Hill’s corroded, aging fuel tanks as quickly as possible.”

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