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Final Tanker Leaves Pearl Harbor With the Last of Red Hill's Fuel

Yosemite tanker
Yosemite Trader leaves Pearl Harbor with the last fuel from Red Hill (U.S. Navy)

Published Dec 21, 2023 7:36 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy's legacy risk of petroleum pollution at Pearl Harbor is coming to a close with the draining of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. The final tanker carrying jet fuel from the vast underground tank farm has departed, delivering the last of the Navy's strategic fuel supply to the Philippines. 

In November 2021, the WWII-era Red Hill facility suffered a 19,000-gallon fuel spill, which contaminated the drinking water supply for about 93,000 American soldiers, sailors and family members at Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. At least 2,000 people reported that they were sickened by fuel in water.  

In the political outcry that followed the spill, Hawaii's congressional delegation signaled that it would attempt to force Red Hill's closure via legislation. Rather than continue the fight, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin signaled that the military would support defueling the aging site in March 2022. Preparatory repairs took more than a year, and the tank farm's final fuel transfer began in October. 

On Wednesday, the tanker Yosemite Trader departed the Red Hill fuel pier in Pearl Harbor, carrying the last of the tank farm's contents on a voyage to the Philippines. The Pentagon's plan for the fuel supply is to redistribute it to multiple locations around the Pacific, placing it where it might be needed for a contingency. About 40 percent went to Subic Bay; the rest was relocated to tank farms in Hawaii and California. The decision means that the central naval base in Oahu will have somewhat less fuel available for power projection across the expanse of the Pacific, but the majority is still close to hand if needed. 

“From a personal level, honestly, I’m relieved,” defueling mission leader Vice Adm. John Wade told Honolulu's Civil Beat. “That fuel sitting above the aquifer was a threat to the community and the environment.”

The Navy still faces years of litigation over the site's legacy of pollution. The Honolulu Board of Water Supply wants $1.4 billion in compensation for its efforts to address and work around aquifer contamination. 1,600 people affected by the contamination of Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam's water system have filed a class-action suit against the service as well. 

The service still has to do some final cleanup before it can declare Red Hill fully closed. The facility's pipelines still contain about 64,000 gallons of fuel, which will have to be accessed and drained using more technical methods. Removing the final 4,000 gallons will require the destruction of the pipes, Adm. Wade said. The tanks will also have to be manually cleaned to remove the last bits of sludge. 

Defueling task force personnel prepare for the last phase of the project, Dec. 2023 (USN)