The removal of fuel from the Navy’s troubled Red Hill storage facility will take longer than expected and may not begin until the fall of 2024, Hawaii’s congressmen said Monday during a town hall meeting.

The Navy is currently under a state order to defuel the facility following leaks last year that contaminated the drinking water supply for thousands of families living in the Pearl Harbor area. But officials have not specified a clear timeline for fuel removal.

At the public meeting in Honolulu, the congressmen said it will take longer than they and the community would like. The military needs to be sure another leak won’t occur in the process of removing the fuel, they said.

Congressmen Kai Kahele and Ed Case and Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau speak at a town hall on Red Hill on June 20, 2022.
Congressmen Kai Kahele and Ed Case and Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau spoke at a town hall on Red Hill. Screenshot: Facebook Live/2022

U.S. Rep. Ed Case said officials initially had hoped defueling could take three to six months, but that’s no longer realistic.

“We are not going to be able to safely or responsibly defuel in the timeframe that a couple of months ago we were hoping for,” he said. “I don’t know what the date is going to be. I want to get it done as fast as anybody else. But I want to get it done safely.”

The Fiscal Year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, if approved, would require the military to commence defueling by the end of 2023, but language in the legislation would allow the secretary of defense to delay that process, U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele said. The congressman said that possibility is “problematic.”

“The likelihood of commencing defueling by December 31, 2023 is a little aggressive. It is more likely that it can be done by the fall of 2024. But I’m just speculating after reading a report,” he said. “That will come down to the Navy and the Department of Health sitting down and figuring out how we’re going to get this done.”

However, Ernie Lau, the chief engineer of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, said there is good reason to be cautious. If fuel spewed from a particular section of Red Hill’s pipelines, it could take 21 minutes to fill the facility’s lower access tunnel, he said, citing a report he read by a Navy consultant from the 1990s.

Rep. Ed Case speaks at a Red Hill town hall on June 20, 2022.
Rep. Ed Case said defueling will take longer than officials initially thought. Screenshot: Facebook Live/2022

“We’re dealing with a nightmare here,” he said. “They need to do it quickly, but they have to do it safely because they could inadvertently create a worse problem for all of us.”

The Navy is under a mandate to submit a defueling plan by November. The Hawaii Department of Health also is requiring the military to complete repairs before fuel is drained. After repairs are done, it may take 12 months or more to actually remove the petroleum, according to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

Environmental and community advocates have pointed out that the Navy said in a 2019 report that it could drain a tank at Red Hill in 36 hours. Several of them said Monday the current time period needs to be sped up.

“We can’t wait two years,” Pete Doktor, a member of Veterans for Peace, said at the meeting. “Can you?”

Environmental activist Anna Chua also questioned the timeline.

“When it comes to war-making, things can move in a blink of an eye, but when it comes to protecting the people of Hawaii, this island, it’s going to take two to three years,” Chua said. “That’s unacceptable.”

Kahele said the fuel needs to be removed as quickly as possible. He acknowledged there is “risk in waiting.” In the meantime, some 100 million gallons of fuel is still stored 100 feet above Oahu’s main aquifer.

The Navy insists the tap water is now safe for families back in their homes after an extensive flushing process. But impacted residents testified at the meeting that they are still experiencing debilitating health issues and that they believe the water is still contaminated. Families are spending their own money to purchase water and are desperate for answers, testifiers said.

Veronica Crescioni, a military spouse, said affected families were told there were no longterm health impacts of drinking fuel, but her doctor told her she has permanent damage to her esophagus. 

She urged the congressional delegation to advocate for assistance for victims of the crisis.

“There are days when I can hardly swallow,” she said. “I understand Red Hill is going to be shut down, but people need to be taken care of.”

President Joe Biden has asked Congress for $1 billion to respond to the Red Hill crisis which would go toward repairs, defueling and addressing health impacts.

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