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U.S. Navy Moves Towards Final Agreement on Red Hill Closure Plan

Red Hill fuel tank
The Navy would like to seal off and preserve Red Hill's cavernous tanks for possible reuse (Hawaii Department of Health file image)

Published Jan 3, 2023 8:30 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy and environmental regulators are moving towards agreement on the final fate of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility near Pearl Harbor. The controversial underground tank farm spilled about 20,000 gallons of fuel in late 2021, contaminating the water supply for thousands of military servicemembers at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. 

Under heavy political pressure, the Pentagon decided last year that the Navy would defuel and close Red Hill, and that process is under way. The service has a list of about 250 deficiencies that will have to be fixed before it can fully pump out the site's 20 multi-million-gallon tanks. Once that process is complete, there will only be the question of what to do with the massive underground site - whether to excavate and demolish it; backfill it with concrete; close it off and abandon it in place; or preserve it for some non-fuel reuse, like water storage. 

In December, the Navy asked the State of Hawaii's Department of Health (DOH) for permission to close off the facility permanently without major modifications, a process which would cost about $120 million and take about three years. In the meantime, the service wants to study options for reusing Red Hill's tanks for other purposes. 

“This important step underscores our commitment to safely close the Red Hill facility and we look forward to hearing the Hawaii Department of Health’s feedback,” said Rear Adm. Steve Barnett, commander, Navy Region Hawaii. “We are hopeful for an expeditious approval of the proposal so that we can continue on our path to close Red Hill.”

For its part, the EPA has proposed a consent order that would require the Navy to take specific administrative steps during defueling, closure and long-term maintenance. In particular, it lays out in detail the service's obligations for the protection of the Waimalu and Moanalua groundwater aquifers, the principal reason for the facility's closure. The Navy will have to draft a water protection plan for all its Pearl Harbor wells; regularly flush the Pearl Harbor drinking water system; sample end-users' taps; and conduct soil vapor testing every week for every storage tank to monitor for soil contamination. 

Meanwhile, the Navy has finished cleaning up an AFFF spill near one of the complex's tunnel entrances, removing soil and asphalt contaminated with the substance. Traditional AFFF formulas contain PFOAs and PFAS, the carcinogenic compounds often called "forever chemicals" because of their extreme durability in the natural environment. The cleanup's completion puts the service back on track to continue defueling operations. 

The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility is a unique Navy asset. Between 1940-43, the Defense Department - then known as the Department of War - carved 20 giant tanks out of a solid basalt ridge outside Honolulu, connecting them by pipeline to the piers at Pearl Harbor. The site is capable of holding up to 250 million gallons of fuel, enough to power the Navy's westward reach across the Pacific Ocean.