The U.S. Department of Justice has agreed to drop its legal challenges to a state health department order that demanded it drain its World War II-era fuel facility at Red Hill.

The Hawaii Department of Health issued the order in December after the U.S. Navy admitted fuel from its facility had contaminated the drinking water of thousands of Pearl Harbor area residents. Despite taking responsibility for the crisis, the military fought against the state order and argued that the state lacked the power to make such demands.

Red Hill Well Recovery fuel spill
The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage facility is located just 100 feet above Oahu’s main aquifer. Courtesy: Navy/2022

It filed legal appeals in both state and federal court in February. On Friday though, government attorneys notified the court in both cases that they are withdrawing their appeals.

“By dismissing these appeals with prejudice, the Navy can no longer make those legal arguments,” said David Henkin, a senior attorney for Earthjustice. “It has to follow the lead of the Department of Health.” 

The Navy did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday afternoon.

Earthjustice attorney David Henkin said now that the parties are on the same page legally speaking, officials can focus on defueling. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2020

On March 7, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the defense department would permanently close Red Hill, but his statement made no mention of the state order and the timeline he offered for defueling doesn’t align with the state’s requirements. The DOH order requires defueling within 30 days of repairs. Austin said it could take a year or more.

“At this point, we know it should be the department of health that determines what is and is not needed rather than the Navy doing that and fighting over DOH’s oversight,” Henkin said. 

In a statement, Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathleen Ho said the military’s dropping of its appeals is a step forward for the people of Hawaii and the environment.

“While today’s announcement is good news, the work continues,” she said. “DOH will continue to act expeditiously and proactively to oversee the safe defueling and decommissioning of Red Hill and restoration of the aquifer.”

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