The military said it will begin removing about a million gallons of fuel from three pipelines at Red Hill on Tuesday in the first phase of closing the fuel storage facility at the center of a major water contamination crisis that began last year.

The announcement on Monday came after a more than a week of delays due to a series of ruptured water pipes, affecting some 93,000 people near Pearl Harbor who were told to boil water as a safeguard against bacterial infection. Those water mains have been fixed, and the advisory was lifted last week.

The draining of the pipelines, which officials said will take six days to complete, is the start of a closing process that military officials have said will last until July 2024. The next steps will be to make major repairs to the underground network before the entire 104 million gallons of fuel can be removed from massive tanks.

Officials from the Joint Task Force Red Hill stressed that their goal is to safely close the World War II-era facility while preventing another catastrophic spill.

The Joint Task Force Red Hill will use these facilities to remove the fuel presently stored at the Red Hill location. Cassie Ordonio/Civil Beat/2022

“The defueling of the Red Hill facility is the right thing to do for our community, for the people of Hawaii, for our environment, and for national security,” Navy Rear Adm. John Wade, commander of the task force, said at a news conference.

The Department of Defense’s overall defueling plan is required as part of the state health department’s emergency order after more than 20,000 gallons of fuel spewed into the Red Hill tunnel and sickened many water consumers on Oahu last year.

In turn, the Pentagon announced earlier this year that it would close the underground facility for good. The facility, which sites about 100 feet above one of Oahu’s main aquifers, consists of 20 massive fuel storage tanks and pipelines that supply ships and aircraft in the harbor.

About 90% of the fuel in the pipelines will be released downhill to a pumping station at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam while the rest will be vacuumed out, said Navy Capt. Shawn Triggs, commander of the Naval Supply Fleet Logistics at Pearl Harbor. The fuel will then be transferred to above-ground storage tanks and fuel barges to eventually be used to supply ships and aircraft.

Triggs said the military had conducted safety drills before starting the so-called unpacking process. The next step involves maintenance and checking the valves of the pipelines, he said.

“We’ve been working for months to refine our process and rehearse the procedure,” Triggs said. “We’ve run spill response exercises with our partners at the Hawaii Department of Health and Environmental Protection Agency.”

“We’re ready now to go ahead and defuel the pipeline, drain the pipeline and actually remove fuel from Red Hill in the first time in almost a year,” Triggs said, underscoring this is only the first step of the overall process.

Triggs said the pipelines will remain empty for the duration of the repairs. He said they will be constantly monitored for corrosion, although that’s not a significant concern.

Wade said the most dangerous aspect of the defueling effort is the potential for fuel to enter the aquifer but emphasized the task force has been training to prevent that possibility.

“We’ve also incorporated lessons learned from the May and November spills, so we apply those lessons learned so that we can improve our performance and reduce risk to the greatest extent possible,” Wade said, referring to the two leaks involved in last year’s crisis.

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