On Anniversary of Pearl Harbor, U.S. Navy Confronts a WWII Legacy Risk

usn red hill fuel tank farm
Pipeline tunnel at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility (US Navy file image)

Published Dec 6, 2021 10:40 PM by The Maritime Executive

On the 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, Pacific Fleet is coming to terms with a long-expected WWII legacy problem. On Monday, facing pressure from the governor of Hawaii and the state's entire congressional delegation, the Navy said that it would temporarily halt use of the Red Hill fuel storage facility, a 250-million-gallon tank farm on the outskirts of Honolulu. 

Servicemembers who live near the aging Red Hill fuel storage site have reported fuel in their tapwater, and testing has confirmed the presence of petroleum in a water supply well located next to the underground tank farm. Some personnel have reported that they have been sickened by the water contamination. As a precautionary measure, the Navy has brought in drinking water by truck, opened temporary shower facilities and moved 700 affected personnel to hotels. Meanwhile, the Hawaii Department of Health has advised the remaining 93,000 customers of the Navy's Honolulu-area water system to avoid using tapwater. 

The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility is a unique asset for Navy operations in the Pacific. When Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, they chose not to strike the naval base's previous, aboveground tank farm, and the Navy got lucky. Red Hill solved that strategic vulnerability. Between 1940 and 1943, miners carved 20 giant tanks out of a solid basalt ridge outside Honolulu, then connected them by pipeline to the piers at Pearl Harbor. The site's elevation provides gravity-assisted flow, and its underground location is harder to hit in the event of an enemy attack. 

However, the facility is nearing its 80th anniversary, and concerns about its integrity have been mounting for years. A 14,000 gallon spill of fuel/water mixture from a drain line last month and a smaller spill in May both heightened those concerns. The new report of well water contamination - which may be linked to the two recent spills - confirmed long-held fears about the site's environmental health risk. On Sunday, all of Hawaii's top political leaders called for the site to be temporarily shut down. 

"Test results confirming contamination of drinking water at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam show that the Navy is not effectively operating the World War II-era facility and protecting the health and safety of the people of Hawai‘i," said Gov. David Ige, Sen. Brian Schatz, Sen. Mazie Hirono, Rep. Ed Case and Rep. Kai Kahele in a joint statement. “We are calling for the Navy to immediately suspend operations at Red Hill while they confront and remedy this crisis."

The Navy confirmed a temporary shutdown at Red Hill the next day. 

"The Navy is not moving fuel from operational tanks at Red Hill at this time," a Navy spokesman told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Monday. "However, please remember that the fuel stored at Red Hill is vital to the nation and Hawaii, providing fuel not only to the Navy, Air Force, Army and Marines, but also [the] Coast Guard and Hawaii National Guard."