Navy Rear Adm. John Wade has a huge responsibility. 

As commander of the newly formed Joint Task Force Red Hill, he is in charge of removing millions of gallons of fuel from the Red Hill fuel complex – all while preventing another catastrophic spill at the troubled World War II-era facility. 

And he needs to do it while rebuilding trust with a community that feels betrayed after thousands of gallons of fuel from Red Hill contaminated the drinking water around Pearl Harbor last year, and the Navy was criticized for its flawed response to the problem.

Rear Admiral John Wade, Commander, Joint Task Force Red Hill speaks to media at a press conference.
Rear Adm. John Wade, commander of Joint Task Force Red Hill, met with journalists on Monday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

At an introductory meeting with the media on Monday, Wade said he feels the weight of that challenge and pledged to do his job with accountability and transparency. 

“I have an obligation to listen to you, and I also will tell you what we’re doing and why, provide timelines and communicate as transparently as possible when things are good, but also when there are setbacks, either perceived or real,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, I understand the enormity and the importance of this mission. I deeply care. I’m honored and humbled by this important task, and I commit to give you my very best.”

It’s a delicate situation: The Navy is charged with removing some 100 million gallons from the Red Hill tanks – and another 1 million from the pipelines that lead to Pearl Harbor, Wade said – all without springing another leak. A Navy consultant has said the facility needs extensive repairs to complete the defueling process safely, but the pressure is on to drain and close the facility as soon as possible. 

The Navy estimates the defueling process will conclude by July 2024 and will cost some $230 million – plus “much more” to actually close the facility down, Wade said. 

Late November will mark a year since some 19,000 gallons of jet fuel gushed from a Red Hill pipeline for 34 hours, just 380 feet away from the drinking water source. The disaster sickened several hundred military families, many of whom are still ill and fear they will face health impacts far into the future. 

For years, the Navy maintained that Red Hill was safe and said fuel spills that occurred were isolated instances of human error. But on Monday, Wade echoed the grave concerns many community members have expressed for years. 

“Every day that that fuel was sitting there is a threat to our community and to the environment,” he said. 

Wade has 32 years of experience with the Navy. The New York native is a graduate of the Naval Academy with a bachelor’s degree in economics and master’s degrees in information systems technology and national security strategy. He’s been in Hawaii for two years and was most recently the director of operations for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. 

However, when it comes to expertise in fuel, Wade admitted he comes up empty. 

“I don’t have any specific training in fuel storage or fuel specifically,” he said Monday. 

Asked to identify members of his team who do have expertise either in fuel storage or in the Red Hill fuel facility specifically, Wade declined to provide names. He also wouldn’t specify how many of his staff members, if any, have such knowledge. However, he said he is in talks with the Defense Logistics Agency energy office, which is made up of “experts in the fuel field.” 

Wade highlighted the hiring of Army Brig. Gen. Michelle Link, who has an engineering background, to be deputy commander of the task force and Army Brig. Gen. Lance Okamura as the Red Hill strategic engagement lead. Okamura is from Hawaii, Wade said, and was most recently the head of Joint Task Force Guantanamo in Cuba. 

But Wade was unable to say whether either of those hires have experience in fuel management. 

Wayne Tanaka, the executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, said that’s troubling.

View of the inside of the building containing the Joint Task Force Red Hill operatiions located on Ford Island.
Joint Task Force Red Hill is working out of a converted movie theater building on Ford Island. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“That is a big concern of mine, that decision-makers won’t have the expertise to objectively assess what they’re being told,” he said. “I’m concerned that the folks advising the task force may be the same folks who for years have been denying there are issues with Red Hill.” 

Wade said he will oversee a 120-person team, and 90 members are already in place. Some of them worked on Monday out of the task force’s headquarters, a converted movie theater on Ford Island. 

The task force will cooperate with the Hawaii Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Wade said. 

Meanwhile, environmental advocates and community members have been asking for a seat at the task force’s table. 

The Oahu Water Protectors are pushing for the inclusion of independent subject matter experts, including the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, as well as families impacted by the Red Hill fuel releases. They also want community advocates, such as Tanaka, retired Army Col. Ann Wright and University of Hawaii professor Kamanamaikalani Beamer to be involved. 

On Monday, Wade expressed openness to the idea but didn’t make any promises. 

“We are exploring some sort of opportunity, maybe an advisory group,” he said. “I do feel that having that voice will help me to understand the tenor and tone and how I can be better and more responsive to our community.”

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