Today, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III announced the closure of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage facility — an ongoing source of water contamination for the Hawaiian island of Oʻahu. The Department said it is set to issue a plan detailing the process for defueling the facility with a commitment to a 12-month deadline for completion of the shutdown. A plan to defuel the archaic system was due to the State Health Department on February 3, 2022. The Navy says it will submit that plan by May 31, 2022.
“Admitting you have a problem is just step one in the journey to fixing it,” said Wayne Tanaka, Sierra Club of Hawai‘i’s chapter director. “We all need to continue to hold the Navy accountable not just in this promise to defuel and shut down Red Hill, but to address the harms that have occurred and will continue to occur due to the mess it created, and to provide us with the resources necessary to pull us out of the ongoing contamination crisis.”
“The Department of Defense has finally acknowledged that the Red Hill facility needs to be shut down to avoid further contamination of O‘ahu’s water supply,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. “Now, the Navy needs to drop its appeals of the Department of Health’s emergency order requiring defueling of the Red Hill tanks, and withdraw its application for a permit to keep operating the polluting facility.”
In November 2021, after yet another fuel leak from the facility, fuel-laced water was delivered to customers on the Navy’s water system, including Navy and Army personnel and their dependents, and civilian residents living in former naval housing. Over 5,000 people presented for medical screenings, the majority of whom exhibited symptoms consistent with petroleum poisoning, including burning skin and throats, vomiting, and neurological issues. The state health department‘s “do not drink” order for all customers on the Navy’s water system, including 100,000 residents, and dozens of schools and businesses, remains in effect for most customers.
While the contamination so far appears to affect only the Navy’s water system serving 100,000 people, the contamination is in the primary aquifer for the island of Oʻahu, where more than 1 million people live. This aquifer also provides water to farms, streams, and nearshore ocean habitats on the south side of the island, including Waikīkī and the Financial District. To minimize the spread of fuel in the aquifer, the Navy is pumping, treating, and dumping 5 million gallons of water into a nearby stream every day. In addition, the island’s Board of Water Supply stopped delivering water from its primary source, instead pulling from wells farther from the contamination site. Water restrictions are expected to be announced for this summer in order to keep water use within the sustainable yield of the island’s secondary water sources.
Red Hill is a 1940’s fuel depot comprised of 20 “field-constructed” tanks with gravity-fed pipelines to Pearl Harbor. Over its almost 80 years of operation, the Red Hill facility has reported nearly 80 leaks into the environment. Because of the nature of the volcanic substrate underlying the facility, the 200,000 gallons that have leaked from this facility have never been cleaned up.
“For years, the Navy has been telling us that the Red Hill facility is vital for national security and irreplaceable. Now, the Secretary of Defense has done a 180 and concluded that the facility is out-of-date and that, in the 21st century, there are much better ways to supply the military with fuel. This just goes to show that we really need to take a healthy dollop of salt with the military’s claims that its decades-old, environmentally destructive ways of doing things are necessary to defend the nation,” added Henkin.
“The Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi is supremely grateful for the countless voices that have brought us to this point in the fight to save our water,” said Tanaka. “This includes the Board of Water Supply, the Department of Health Environmental Health Administration, the elected representatives supporting the shutdown of Red Hill, and most importantly, the many grassroots organizations like the Oʻahu Water Protectors, the Kaʻohewai Coalition, and the many, many other groups and individuals who stepped up and answered the call to defend our island’s source of life from this decrepit fuel facility.”