The U.S. Department of Defense said Wednesday it will expedite its plan to remove fuel from its Red Hill complex after leaks that contaminated the drinking water of some 93,000 people near Pearl Harbor.

The military now projects the defueling process will be complete by July 2024, according to a press release. That’s about six months earlier than the projection offered in the Pentagon’s original defueling plan, which the Hawaii Department of Health rejected for a lack of specificity.

DOD’s plan is a requirement of an emergency order issued by the health department after the contamination crisis began last year. Families, including children, who drank and bathed in the water continue to suffer serious health impacts as a result.

In March, the Pentagon said it would permanently close the underground facility.

AIEA, Hawaii (April 11, 2022) Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command contractors Matt Cornman, front, and Jonathan Martinez perform a routine inspection on a water pipe that connects to a granular activated carbon system at the Red Hill Well. The U.S. Navy continues to work with federal, state and local organizations to support families and residents, conduct long-term monitoring of the Navy water system, and work toward remediating Red Hill Well and the surrounding area. For detailed information, go to: www.navy.mil/jointbasewater. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mar’Queon A. D. Tramble)
The Red Hill fuel storage complex was built during World War II and sits directly above Oahu’s primary drinking water source. U.S. Pacific Fleet/2022

The health department said Wednesday that it has received the new plan and will provide further comment after reviewing it.

“We are focused on ensuring that defueling takes place as quickly and safely as possible,” Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathleen Ho said in a statement. “There is a continued threat to our aquifer and residents every day that fuel remains in the Red Hill tanks. As we review this submission, it is our full expectation that it will have the requisite amount of detail to ensure defueling work can begin.”

The health department has advocated for the swift removal of the approximately 100 million gallons of fuel in Red Hill’s storage tanks and additional fuel in its pipelines. But the state agency also has expressed the need to do it safely.

The facility, built during World War II, is badly corroded and is in serious disrepair, according to a report by a Navy consultant this year. And a military investigation blamed failures in leadership, training and maintenance for the crisis. Two catastrophic fuel spills occurred last year due in large part to human error, investigators found, and facility personnel also found themselves incapable of stopping leaks once they started.

The leak in November, which discharged fuel into the nearby drinking water well, reportedly gushed for 34 hours straight.

The defueling plan is aimed at removing the fuel from the facility without creating another disaster in the process. The Red Hill complex is located directly above Oahu’s primary drinking water source, used by the Navy and Honolulu Board of Water Supply alike. For now, Navy and BWS wells closest to Red Hill are shuttered, and both suppliers say their water is safe to drink.

In a statement, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz expressed concern that the new plan still doesn’t remove the fuel fast enough.

“Shutting down Red Hill cannot be delayed,” the Hawaii Democrat said. “While the updated plan to close the facility sooner is a step in the right direction, DoD must make it a priority to move fast and permanently shut down Red Hill as quickly as possible.”

After the health department criticized the DOD’s original defueling plan, the military personnel worked over the last two months to improve it, the DOD said.

“The team condensed the repair timeline, determined certain activities could be conducted in parallel, and reduced the duration of the final phase of defueling from 8 months to approximately 5 months,” the DOD said. “Moving forward, DoD will continue to identify opportunities to accelerate timelines without sacrificing safety.”

The DOD said it will provide the health department with another defueling plan update later this month. That supplement will incorporate analyses from studies that “may identify additional infrastructure modifications to support defueling,” according to the DOD.

The defense department still needs to establish a joint task force whose sole responsibility will be managing the safe and expeditious defueling of Red Hill, Schatz noted.

“That means the Secretary of Defense must act quickly and name its commander, a role that will serve as DoD’s on-the-ground leader responsible for working with state and local officials to safely defuel the tanks,” he said.

You can read the full defueling plan here and the newly released supplement here

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