Secretary of Defense Visits Red Hill Amid Lingering Pollution Concerns

Pump room at Red Hill (USN file photo)

Published Oct 3, 2022 7:26 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy's reputation has taken a bruising in Hawaii over the last year due to a serious fuel spill at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility near Pearl Harbor, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited the site this week to meet with team in charge of shutting it down. 

Red Hill is the Navy's strategic fuel reserve for operations across the wide expanse of the Pacific, and it is a unique facility. Hollowed out of the rock above Honolulu, 20 giant tanks have space enough for up to 250 million gallons of jet fuel and diesel. The site dates back to WWII, and activists have warned that its aging piping and tank walls could pose a spill risk - but it was a cascade of human errors in the tank farm's operation that sealed its fate. 

An accidental spill in May 2021 filled a PVC firefighting-water drain line with about 20,000 gallons of fuel. The overhead drain line was never intended to hold that much liquid for an extended period, and it gradually sagged down - until November, when it was hit by a passing cart and ruptured. The pipe spilled its contents onto the concrete tunnel floor, and the water trickled into a drainage sump - a construction feature the facility's managers did not know about - and thence into Red Hill's water well. Over the days that followed, the fuel/water mixture in the well was pumped directly into the drinking water supply system for Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, affecting about 6,000 personnel. The Navy command in charge of the facility maintained that the contaminated water was safe to drink - until it received a shutdown notice from Hawaii's Department of Health.  

The state of Hawaii and its congressional delegation successfully lobbied to shut Red Hill down and drain it, over the Navy's objections, but this process will likely take time. Activists are calling for a faster timetable in order to minimize the risk of any further pollution.

“Defueling and closing Red Hill is the right thing to do – for our service members, our families, the people of Hawaii, the environment, and our national security,” said Secretary Austin in a statement. “We are moving out and will defuel this facility as quickly and safely as possible.

Red Hill has been run by the Navy for the better part of eight decades, but two Army officers have been appointed to the task force charged with defueling the site. U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Michelle Link will serve as the task force's deputy commander, Austin announced, and Brig. Gen. Lance Okamura will serve as its strategic engagement lead.