The Department of Defense is slated to remove more than a million gallons of fuel from three pipelines at the Navy’s Red Hill facility in the coming weeks after the Hawaii Department of Health conditionally approved a plan to do so on Friday.

The military’s so-called unpacking plan is the first phase in the overall defueling process, which is required by the health department’s emergency order that was imposed after a contamination crisis began last year when a leak affected the drinking water of some 93,000 people near Pearl Harbor.

The approval came after the DOD submitted its plan to drain the World War II-era facility last month. The military said the defueling process will be completed by July 2024, a few months earlier than its original prediction, which critics said wasn’t fast enough.

Red Hill Well Recovery fuel spill
The Department of Defense is planning to begin phase one of the defueling process later this month. Navy/2022

In a reversal, the Pentagon announced in March that it would permanently close the underground facility, which includes a network of 20 massive fuel storage tanks and pipelines that supplied ships and aircraft in the harbor.

The tanks are 100 feet above an aquifer that provides drinking water to most of the island. More than 20,000 gallons of fuel spewed into the Red Hill tunnel last year.

The commander of a new Red Hill task force, Rear Adm. John Wade, said earlier this week that the Navy would begin by removing 1 million gallons of fuels in the pipeline. In all, there is some 100 million gallons in the tanks, but officials have said repairs are needed to make sure the process is done safely and doesn’t cause more leaks.

Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathleen Ho said the health department will carefully monitor the DOD’s work to drain the existing fuel from the facility.

“The No. 1 priority for the Department of Health is to ensure the safe defueling of the pipelines,” Ho said Friday at a news conference. “Every moment that the fuel remains in the pipelines and the tanks could lead to a catastrophic release, which would forever impact the citizens of Hawaii.”

Health officials said that removing the existing fuel from the pipelines will allow the DOD to begin critical repairs.

According to the health department, the DOD plans to begin removing the existing fuel in the next couple of weeks.

That will be done primarily by “gravity drain,” according to Lene Ichinotsubo, acting program manager for the health department’s solid and hazardous waste branch, who described it as “emptying (from) a straw into a cup.”

It’s up to the Navy to decide on what happens to the removed fuel, DOH spokeswoman Katie Arita-Chang said.

The Pentagon must also seek health department approval for the repair and final defueling plans, she added.

In an approval letter, the health department listed several requirements for phase one including site visits, personnel training on the defueling process and the protection of Oahu’s drinking water.

Ichinotsubo said it’s unclear what the Navy will do with the fuel that’s removed.

“I believe in their original plan the Navy spoke about (the) West Coast, undisclosed locations on Oahu, but I think it was all subject to contractual issues,” Ichinotsubo said. “So as far as locations, we don’t know at this time.”

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