The U.S. Navy is officially recommending that its Red Hill fuel storage complex, once drained of petroleum, be kept in place in perpetuity instead of being filled with concrete or removed altogether, according to a Navy letter and third-party analysis submitted to the Hawaii Department of Health on Thursday. 

An effort to remove the tanks from the ground would pose a “high risk for catastrophic events and loss of life during construction,” according to a report by an engineering consultant Jacobs Government Services Co. 

Leaving the World War II-era tanks, pipelines and tunnels is place is the “optimal closure method,” Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett, commander of Navy Region Hawaii, wrote in a letter to the health department. 

221214-N-OT701-1009 JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM (Dec. 14, 2022) Joint Task Force Red Hill Commander Vice Admiral John Wade speaks with Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Lisa M. Franchetti during a site visit to the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. Franchetti met with local military leadership during her visit to Navy Region Hawaii to discuss Sailor quality of service, shore infrastructure, and supporting our Sailors and their families. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Greg Hall)
Vice Adm. John Wade, commander of Joint Task Force Red Hill, speaks with Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Lisa Franchetti during a site visit to the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. Navy Region Hawaii/2022

While the Navy has stated it will not use Red Hill for fuel again, the “closure in place” plan would allow the facility to be used for unspecified non-fuel uses and would minimize environmental and community impacts and risks to worker safety, Barnett said.

It’s also the cheapest and fastest option, according to a third-party analysis the Navy submitted to DOH. Closure in place could be accomplished in three years for an estimated $119 million. 

The 20 Red Hill tanks are made of quarter-inch steel liners encased in concrete and located in cavities that were blasted into the lava rock of an Oahu mountainside in the 1940s. They are each 250 feet tall. Seventeen men died while the tanks were being constructed.

Likewise, removing them poses “extreme safety concerns,” the report says. Destabilizing the mountain could put workers and the surrounding community at risk, the report states. 

“The consequences could be high, especially since the Red Hill facility is adjacent to a residential neighborhood,” the report states.

If it could be accomplished, removal would take an estimated seven years and would cost more than half a billion dollars, according to the report. 

Even with the closure in place plan, the facility would still require ongoing monitoring of water accumulation, structural integrity and other conditions, the Jacobs report states. But generally, the tanks would not be expected to deteriorate in the next 50 to 100 years, according to the report. 

Keeping the facility in use for non-fuel uses could have “economic benefits,” according to the report, but the analysis doesn’t go into detail about that. Red Hill was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1995. 

The consultant also considered the possibility of using Red Hill to store non-fuel material, although it didn’t identify what that would be. In that case, the tanks may need to be coated with a protective substance and would require regular maintenance and repair. 

If the tanks were filled with an inert material, like concrete, the Navy would need to procure 1.2 million cubic yards of material and installing it would be disruptive to local traffic, according to the report. This option is estimated to cost $443 million and take five years. 

Red Hill fuel facility closure options, cost and timeline
A consultant outlined closure options and “rough order of magnitude” estimates for cost and timeline. The Navy wants to go with the cheapest and fastest option, Alternative 1. Navy/2022

The Navy first shared its intentions to leave Red Hill in place at a November press conference, before the third-party analysis was done. 

The announcement has alarmed community members who want more than just verbal assurances that the facility will never be used for fuel or other hazardous substances. Amid back-to-back failures at Red Hill that have contaminated the land and drinking water around the facility with fuel and toxic firefighting chemicals, public trust in the Navy is low. 

Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau expressed his concern at a Red Hill Fuel Tank Advisory Committee meeting last month.

“If there is a beneficial non-fuel reuse that goes on for awhile (and) at some point in the future there is a need for fuel storage, then could the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility be resurrected from the dead?” he asked. 

“If the tank liners are still there, the pipes that move fuel to and from Pearl Harbor, if everything is still there in place, we are only one degree of freedom from getting back to fuel storage over the aquifer.” 

In a statement on Thursday, BWS reiterated its opposition to the Navy’s preferred plan.

“Closing the tanks by either removing them from the ground or filling them with an inert material as generally required under the DOH’s rules is the only way to ensure that they can never be used or put our irreplaceable sole-source groundwater aquifer in imminent peril of contamination again,” the agency said.

According to Barnett’s letter, the Navy is seeking DOH’s approval of its plan. He also said the Navy will solicit public input prior to moving forward. 

“We intend to leverage an inclusive, clear, and accountable approach to gather ideas and will conduct a thorough review of all input before making a final determination of the beneficial non-fuel reuse,” he wrote.

In a statement, Wayne Tanaka, the executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, said the final closure plan must take into consideration the possible impacts to the groundwater located 100 feet below the tanks, whether from existing contamination or the facility’s future decay.

“We must be mindful of any potential risks to our aquifer and to the surrounding environment that may arise not just in the next decade, but over the next century or longer,” he said in a statement. “A long view is absolutely critical to ensure we donʻt saddle our grandchildren or great-grandchildren with another Red Hill crisis decades into the future.”

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