Reversing Pledge, U.S. Navy Contests Order to Drain Red Hill Tank Farm

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, third from right, touring the Red Hill facility in December (USN)

Published Feb 2, 2022 4:51 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Pentagon has decided to contest an emergency order from the State of Hawaii to drain the U.S. Navy's strategic tank farm at Pearl Harbor, the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, reversing earlier pledges from Navy officials. 

State Gov. David Ige and the State Department of Health ordered the Navy to close and drain the facility in December after a large-scale fuel spill contaminated a drinking water well. The spill event put actionable levels of distillate fuel in the water supply for Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, which supplies about 93,000 customers. Several thousand military servicemembers and dependents were relocated to temporary housing while the Navy worked on flushing out the contamination; the cleanup effort is still under way. 

Wednesday was the final deadline for the Navy to appeal the state's emergency order by filing a case in state court. In a statement, Deputy Secretary of State Kathleen Hicks said that the service has decided to file an appeal in order to get more "time to make evidence-based and transparent decisions." While litigation is under way, the Navy will continue talks with the state. 

The Pentagon's court filing challenges the State of Hawaii's administrative review process and its authority to order the facility to be drained. “Rather than direct action that may be necessary to remediate the November 2021 [fuel spill], the final order goes further, effectively seeking to shut down the Red Hill facility itself,” the government argued.

Hicks noted that the Navy has complied with parts of the state order, including an operational pause in fuel transfers; setting up new monitoring protocols; and commissioning a third-party assessment of the site. 

"As to the long-term future of Red Hill, we are on an aggressive schedule to analyze and determine the distribution of fuel reserves for our operations in the Pacific theater," Hicks said. "This analysis by the Department of Defense will be completed within sixty days to enable the Secretary of Defense to make a decision on the role of Red Hill moving forward."

However, Hawaii's regulators and congressional representatives sharply criticized Hicks' reversal.  

"The DoD made a grave and unforced error that undermines public trust. Fortunately, we have civilian oversight of the military, and this inexplicable and maddening resistance to the defuel order will not succeed. They will lose in court, and they will lose in Congress," said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) in a statement Monday. 

“Let me be clear: the safety and well-being of the people of Hawaii must be the top priority,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), chair of the Committee on Armed Services' Seapower subcommittee. “I will oppose any appeal by DoD that challenges the state’s authority to regulate Red Hill operations.”

"The Navy committed to Congress and in multiple public forums that it would comply with the emergency order," said Hawaii Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathleen Ho. "Today’s announcement that they intend to appeal the emergency order is yet another breach of trust between the Navy and the people of Hawai‘i."