The Navy is proposing that its World War II-era fuel storage tanks and pipelines at Red Hill be permanently closed by August 2027 and stay in place after they are drained of fuel, according to a plan submitted to the Hawaii health department on Tuesday.

The “closure in place” plan would take out of service 20 massive fuel storage tanks, four smaller underground tanks and a sprawling piping system but leave them in the ground indefinitely for possible reuse not involving fuel or other contaminants.

The facility was built into a Honolulu mountainside near Pearl Harbor in the 1940s and sits 100 feet above the island’s primary drinking water aquifer. 

Military personnel conduct a pre-unpacking Safety Walkthrough at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility (RHBFSF) in Halawa, Hawaii, Oct. 12, 2022. Joint Task Force-Red Hill was established by the Department of Defense to ensure the safe and expeditious defueling of the RHBFSF. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Matthew Mackintosh)
The military has started removing fuel from the Red Hill pipelines, but there are approximately 100 million gallons of fuel in the facility’s massive tanks. Joint Task Force Red Hill/2022

Decommissioning the facility will be a “meticulous process,” Meredith Berger, assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment, said Tuesday at a press conference. “We’ve never done something of this size before, but we are committed to making sure we do it right.”

Tuesday’s announcement marks the first time the Navy has given a timeline for Red Hill’s permanent closure. The closure plan is separate from the defueling process, which is slated to be complete by the end of June 2024.

Hawaii’s health department ordered the Navy to remove the fuel from Red Hill last year after thousands of gallons of jet fuel contaminated the drinking water of Pearl Harbor-area families. Amid sustained community and political pressure, the secretary of defense subsequently ordered the facility to be shut down for good. 

The Navy said its Red Hill closure plan ensures minimal impacts to the environment, public health and worker safety.

It also allows for the potential repurposing of the tanks for some unspecified use in the future, the plan said, although Berger emphasized that use would not involve fuel or any “potential contaminants.” 

The plan notes that the site is a National Civil Engineering Landmark and may be preserved for historical purposes, but the Navy said it will consult with the community before making a decision.

“The Navy would collaborate with stakeholders to evaluate the options for beneficial non-fuel reuse of the tanks,” according to the plan.

Meredith Berger, an assistant secretary of the Navy, and Rear Admiral Stephen Barnett, the commander of Navy Region Hawaii, discussed the permanent shutdown of the Red Hill fuel facility at a press conference on Hickam on Tuesday. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2022

Once a reuse option has been selected, the Navy said it would “take appropriate steps to render the tanks unusable for fuel storage.” 

In a statement, Kathleen Ho, the DOH deputy director of environmental health, said the department will review the Navy’s submission with a focus on ensuring a quick and safe shut down of the facility.

“Any closure plan must guarantee that the Navy will never reuse the Red Hill tanks for fuel or for other substances that threaten our aquifer,” she said.

Under orders from the health department, the Navy’s plan outlines the costs and benefits of alternatives, like filling the tanks with some kind of material or removing them entirely from the ground. 

A “robust, third party analysis” of those alternatives is being conducted and will be shared with the health department in December, the plan states.

However, those options would take longer to complete and would be more disruptive to the environment and community, according to the Navy’s plan. While the cost of the Navy’s proposed solution has yet to be determined, according to Berger, the plan estimates that filling in or removing the tanks would cost 30 to 50 times more.

Meanwhile, the Navy will work to remediate the contaminated soil around the Red Hill facility, which has been leaking fuel since its construction.

Fuel breaks down in the environment over time, but there is an estimated 4,000 gallons of relatively fresh fuel from the two fuel leaks in May and November last year that the Navy will be working to remediate, according to Navy Capt. Cameron Geertsema, the commanding officer of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command.

Navy Capt. Cameron Geertsema, commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command, said the Navy is committed to remediating the contamination around Red Hill. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat 2022

The Navy’s “No. 1 priority” is to remediate and remove that contamination, Geertsema said.

To close the facility, the Navy will also need to address the toxic foam in its firefighting system. Aqueous Film Forming Foam was installed in 2015 but will need to be removed under requirements of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, the plan said.

According to the Navy, no AFFF has been released into the aquifer. 

A task force led by Rear Adm. John Wade is responsible for defueling Red Hill. His team is leading the so-called unpacking of the pipelines and has removed over 960,000 gallons of fuel so far. 

The current phase of that work is going more slowly than anticipated, but they are making progress, the task force said in a press release on Monday.

“We are prioritizing safety over speed and will keep the community and media informed,” Wade said in a statement.

The commander of Navy Region Hawaii Stephen Barnett is in charge of the facility’s permanent closure. 

On Tuesday, Barnett said he plans to do this work “in lockstep” with regulators and to maintain continuous communication with the community. 

In a statement, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply said it welcomes the shutdown of Red Hill.

“Permanent closure of the Red Hill tanks is long overdue,” the agency said.

However, the water utility said it has concerns about how long it will take to decommission the facility and the Navy’s desire to leave its fuel storage infrastructure in place. BWS officials also felt the plan lacked detail and stakeholder input.

The Sierra Club of Hawaii also has concerns, according to executive director Wayne Tanaka.

“I understand the cost and safety concerns associated with removing the Red Hill tanks,” Tanaka, an engineer, said in a statement.

“However, I cannot imagine how it would ever be considered safe to reuse them for the storage of anything, even non-fuel substances, given their proximity to our aquifer, their dilapidated condition, and environmental issues like the continual infiltration of rainwater that corroded the tanks and other infrastructure for 80 years.”

He noted that Red Hill could pose longterm threats to the aquifer even after the tanks are drained.

“The Navy must clean up existing contamination in the soil, perched groundwater, and our aquifer itself, as well as prevent potential future contamination including from corroding metal, the breakdown of coating, cleaning solutions, PFAS, and other sources that may slowly leach contaminants into the environment over years and decades to come,” he said.

“Our next governor, and future governors to come, must ensure that they appoint and empower leaders who understand the importance of long-term and sustained accountability and vigilance in the future of Kapūkakī, and of our island.”

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