Red Hill Shutdown

The recent water contamination crisis on Oahu has rung the death knell for the U. S. Navy’s 80-year-old Red Hill underground fuel storage system. Last week the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, announced plans to defuel and permanently close the system. Congress has approved $686 million for first steps: to cover costs of thousands of families sickened and displaced by the November 2021 contamination of drinking water on Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, to empty the Red Hill tanks, and to provide remediation and environmental restoration. This is good news for Hawaii, but the only other “green” in the plan is the billions of taxpayer dollars it will cost in the end.

Contractors Pacific Naval Air Bases (CPNAB) built the underground fuel storage system between 1941 and 1943 to protect Pearl Harbor’s fuel from enemy attack. Morrison-Knudsen Company was the contractor in charge of the Red Hill project, as well as Wake Island and Midway. (The images I chose for this post are drawings of Red Hill construction from David O. Woodbury’s 1946 book, Builders for Battle.) Five years ago, I wrote a post titled Red Hill about a 27,000-gallon leak at the facility in 2014 and the dozens of leaks that the Navy detected and patched over the decades since original construction. Age and gravity have clearly been taking their toll on Red Hill.

Readings from the 2014 incident showed that the fuel leak hit the big aquifer that lies a hundred feet below the storage tanks but did not reach the Navy’s primary drinking water well a mile away. The 2021 leak, however, did reach it. In late November hundreds of houses on base reported fuel and chemical odors in their drinking water and dozens of residents became sickened. As the numbers escalated, the Hawaii Department of Health issued a public health advisory for the Navy water system, followed by an emergency order for the Navy to hire an approved contractor to plan and conduct Red Hill defueling. The contamination forced 3,500 military families out of their homes into temporary housing where some remain. The Navy contested the December 6 emergency order but put Red Hill operations “on pause” the following day. Early mitigation efforts included flushing and tests of the water system and expanded to full-scale pumping and carbon filtering in the Red Hill well by January.

The 2021 leak was not a simple tank breach. While 14,000 gallons of fuel was determined to have leaked into the Navy well, it had traveled a labyrinthine path inside Red Hill. According to a U. S. Navy fact sheet issued on March 1, 2022, the cause was a valve break on a fire suppression drain line, which released a mixture of jet fuel (JP-5) and water into a lower access tunnel. I am no engineer, but I had to wonder how jet fuel got into a fire suppression system. I recommend the ongoing series of stories at Hawaii’s “Civil Beat” that dig into the details of the crisis, the malfunctioning fire suppression system, a previously unknown sump drain, and much more.
The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility consists of twenty underground, concrete-encased, vertical steel tanks, each twenty stories tall and capable of holding 12.5 million gallons, for a total capacity of 250 million gallons (current levels are unknown). For eight decades the Navy has piped Red Hill fuel down to Pearl Harbor where it has powered U. S. military activity in the Pacific since WWII. Throughout the recent water contamination crisis, the military resisted shutting down the Red Hill system, even bringing lawsuits in state and federal courts against the DOH emergency order.

The sudden about-face this past week is welcome, but disconcerting. The new position of the Department of Defense is that fueling capability dispersed throughout the Indo-Pacific will meet U. S. military needs better than the centrally located facility at Pearl Harbor. And, of course, shutting down Red Hill will be better for Hawaii’s environment. The DOD says the Navy will submit a defueling plan by May 31 and expects that emptying the tanks will take twelve months. Hawaii lacks storage capacity for that volume, so the plan is to pipe the fuel to shore facilities and on to tankers to ship it out. This begs the question: what tankers? According to a Forbes report by David Axe last June, the U. S. Navy tanker fleet is stretched thin in its primary support role of underway replenishment (at-sea refueling). New John Lewis class tankers now under construction will replace old tankers in the coming years. It will be interesting to see what comes to fetch up millions of gallons of Red Hill fuel next year and where they take it.

Last week’s announcement about the Red Hill closure and dispersion of advanced fueling capability through the Indo-Pacific included potential construction of hardened underground fuel storage in areas such as Alaska, the Marianas, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, and Australia. Good luck digging those “hardened underground” tanks in permafrost and coral.