Amid pressure to act quickly, the Joint Task Force says it’s preparing for worst-case scenarios and proceeding with caution.

How to remove over 100 million gallons of fuel from the Red Hill storage facility quickly — and without allowing another leak? That’s the challenge facing the military team tasked with emptying the giant underground tanks near Pearl Harbor.

The pressure is on after thousands of gallons of fuel from Red Hill contaminated the drinking water in 2021, sickening families who are still struggling with health issues. 

To meet an October target date to begin defueling, preparations are underway, including repairs, tests, rehearsals, training and working with regulators, according to Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Michelle Link, who is the deputy commander of Joint Task Force – Red Hill. 

“Our mantra is: Not a single drop,” Link said, referring to fuel leaking. “We would like to rebuild trust in a way that demonstrates confidence in our ability to execute before we begin moving fuel.”

Brig. Gen. Michelle Link said Joint Task Force – Red Hill is doing a lot of work to prepare for defueling to begin in October. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The Joint Task Force is hosting events this week to share its defueling plans with the community, answer questions and respond to concerns. The first open house was held Tuesday night. Another is scheduled from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday at Keehi Lagoon Memorial Park’s Alfred Los Banos ballroom. 

Preparing For The Worst While Hoping For The Best

The task force is made up of 275 members from all service branches except the Space Force. It is divided into six sections: planning, training, quality assurance, repairs, operations and spill response. Representatives from those divisions are being made available at the open houses.

Community members have called on the Department of Defense to remove the fuel as quickly as possible

The Joint Task Force says it’s doing that, but Link noted the risk is too high to rush the job. The JTF’s latest defueling plan supplement states that in a worst-case scenario, 4.3 million gallons of fuel would be released over the course of 30 hours. 

“It’s not the most likely course of action,” Link, an engineer, said in an interview. “But it’s the most dangerous.”

Joint Task Force Red-Hill graphic depicting the size and scale of the tanks at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in comparison to the Makapu'u Point Lighthouse. This graphic was created using Adobe Illustrator on board Ford Island, Hawaii, Nov. 22, 2022. (DoD graphic by U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Luke Cohen)
Each of the 20 Red Hill tanks could contain the Makapuu lighthouse five times over. Not all of the tanks contain fuel. (DOD graphic/2022)

The defueling mission is complicated by the unique nature of the massive World War II-era facility. It is made up of 20 underground tanks, each the size of a high-rise building, and 3 miles of tunnels and piping. Officials looking for lessons learned from similar defueling efforts have come up empty, Link said. 

“This has never been done before,” she said. “Not of this scope and magnitude.”

With Red Hill’s size comes complexity and a lack of institutional knowledge about how it all works.

“What that requires is an approach that allows you to take a systematic, deliberate and thoughtful approach to every action that you take,” Link said. “We know there is a lot we don’t know.” 

That’s why the task force is approaching the work with caution, she said.

Rehearsing Responses

The JTF is planning to act out several worst-case scenarios and run through response drills this summer under the supervision of regulators, Link said. 

“I challenged the team to think about things in terms of worst-case planning, every single time,” she said. 

The Hawaii Department of Health has said it is encouraged by JTF’s defueling timeline, which aims to finish the majority of defueling in January, sooner than expected.

“Moving up the timeline is a testament to the continued work by DOH and the community to push the Joint Task Force to move quickly and safely to defuel Red Hill,” Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathleen Ho said in a statement.

“We will carefully review this submission to ensure that the updated timeline and plan can be executed safely without any further risk to the environment,” she added.

U.S. Army Maj. Stephen Buck, an engineering officer assigned to Joint Task Force-Red Hill (JTF-RH) reviews his notes inside the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility (RHBFSF) at Halawa, Hawaii, Feb. 22, 2023. Buck is one of approximately 60 engineers working to defuel the RHBFSF. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Orlando Corpuz)
Army Maj. Stephen Buck, an engineering officer assigned to Joint Task Force-Red Hill, reviews his notes inside the facility. Buck is one of about 60 engineers working to defuel Red Hill. (U.S. Air National Guard/2023)

Meanwhile, the JTF is working its way through a long to-do list. 

The team has completed 225 repairs, each of which has to be reviewed at multiple levels for quality assurance and then approved by the state health department, Link said. So far, the DOH has approved 56 repairs.

The JTF is also doing an environmental assessment on the defueling process in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act. That’s on track to be complete by the end of August, Link said. 

Some tasks have multiple steps.

In order to decide where the fuel would go once removed from Red Hill, the team had to determine the quality of the fuel. A process called “dewatering” had to occur for workers to access fuel samples and test them. But for dewatering to happen, the team had to prepare for the possibility of a leak and rehearse the response.

“This has never been done before. Not of this scope and magnitude.”

Brig. Gen. Michelle Link

The team is also trying to learn from prior mistakes at Red Hill.

The pipelines at Red Hill are currently empty. Filling them with fuel will displace the air inside them, which could cause dangerous pressure surges that can cause leaks. That is what occurred during the May 6, 2021 leak at Red Hill. That release became the precursor to the November 2021 leak that contaminated the drinking water. 

To prevent that from happening again, the JTF will fill the pipelines with fuel from separate storage tanks at the bottom of the facility to push the air into an empty Red Hill fuel tank, according to Link. The air will be released through a vent in the tank. Only then will fuel from the other tanks be released, directed with gravity toward Pearl Harbor and pumped into fuel tanker ships. 

Team members will work in sections and everything will be monitored from the control room, Link said. This processing, called repacking, is scheduled to begin at the end of August. 

The Joint Task Force – Red Hill works from its headquarters on Ford Island. (David Croxford/Civil Beat 2023)

“We are going to do this at a snail’s pace, slow and steady to reintroduce that fuel while simultaneously managing the equalization, managing the pressure, and monitoring that as well as the ventilation system and the fuel,” she said. 

Temporary cameras will be set up on tripods to capture the work. 

“We will have individuals on site roving and monitoring the pressure gauges between stations,” she said. “There will be eyes everywhere.” 

By mid-January, an estimated 99.85% of the fuel at Red Hill should be removed. 

The DOD is considering moving some of it to Campbell Industrial Park in Kapolei. The rest might go to areas on the mainland such as Selby and Point Loma in California and Vancouver, Washington. International locations under consideration include Darwin, Australia, the Port of Singapore, Subic Bay in the Philippines and Sasebo, Japan, according to the JTF. 

Some 400,000 gallons of fuel will remain in Red Hill after January. Exactly when it will be drained – and whose responsibility it will be to remove it – is currently unclear. The work will require manual removal of fuel from small surge tanks and low-point drains, Link said.

There is a possibility that work will be left to the Navy, instead of the JTF, according to Link.

“That’s a longer time frame,” Link said. 

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