The Navy has waived its right to contest a new issue by the Hawaii Department of Health that paves the way for permanently closing its Red Hill fuel storage facility. The order requires the Navy to come up with a plan and implementation schedule to drain the massive, underground tanks by June 30 and a plan to shutter the facility by Nov. 1.
While there has been pressure to drain the tanks as quickly as possible after fuel leaked from the facility in 2021 and contaminated the Navy's drinking water system, which serves about 93,000 people, DOH has stressed that it must be done safely to avoid more damage to the environment.
"This emergency order is critical to our efforts to oversee the safe defueling and closure of the facility, " said Kathleen Ho, deputy director of environmental health, in a news release. "Our main focus is ensuring that defueling and closure operations are performed safely and expeditiously. This work will have consequences for us and for future generations, and on behalf of the people and environment of Hawai 'i, we will hold the Navy accountable to honor its commitments."
DOH's new emergency order replaces an order it issued Dec. 6 requiring the Navy to drain its Red Hill tanks and suspend operations until it could prove the facility could be operated safely. The Navy mounted a vigorous defense against the order, leading to a marathon contested case hearing that it lost. The Navy then sued Hawaii in federal and state court.
But in March the Pentagon announced that it would permanently shut down the aging facility amid intense political pressure from Hawaii's congressional delegation, state Legislature and leaders in the Honolulu City Council. The fuel spill had sparked a groundswell of local activism, and by January an overwhelming majority of Hawaii voters said Red Hill should be permanently closed, a Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll showed.
DOH's new emergency order emphasizes state authority and oversight over the Red Hill facility, requiring the Navy to submit plans to DOH for approval and provide it with weekly briefings once defueling begins. The order also requires the Navy to continue its work to try to clean its Red Hill shaft, which was contaminated with jet fuel in 2021.
"The Red Hill Facility has already poisoned our water supply with jet fuel, depriving nearly 100, 000 residents of safe drinking water in their homes for months, and the contamination remains in our aquifer, reducing the island's water supply and raising the specter of water rationing as we head toward summer, " David Henkin, an attorney with Earthjustice who is representing the Hawaii Sierra Club in matters related to Red Hill, said a statement shortly after DOH issued the new order Friday. "We can't afford another human and environmental catastrophe. We need to get the fuel out of Red Hill's corroded, aging fuel tanks as quickly as possible."
DOH's emergency order stresses that the fuel tanks pose an "imminent and ongoing peril to human health and safety and the environment."
The Red Hill fuel facility was hastily built during World War II amid concerns about the vulnerability of the military's above-ground fuel tanks. Considered an engineering marvel, workers built 20 tanks deep within the basalt rock near Red Hill. Each tank is big enough to envelop Aloha Tower and has the capacity to hold about 12.5 million gallons of fuel.
But the tanks, which sit just 100 feet above a primary drinking water source for urban Honolulu, have a long history of leaks, and the aging infrastructure has increased the risk of future leaks. The likelihood of a major release of 120, 000 gallons of fuel in the next century is at least 34 %, according to DOH, which found that this is likely an understated percentage. DOH also found that Red Hill is likely leaking 5, 803 gallons of fuel a year that goes undetected.
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