A year after a fuel leak sickened families and forced the Pentagon to shut down the Red Hill fuel storage facility in Hawaii, the Navy laid out its nearly 5-year plan to permanently close the World War II-era facility.
The Navy intends to remove the remaining fuel from the storage tanks – a process that will take until June 2024 – then remove the tanks from service while leaving them in the ground. The Navy said this plan would minimize the impact on the environment and public health.
The Navy submitted the proposal for approval to the Hawaii Department of Health on Tuesday. If all goes according to plan, the Navy says it will complete the closure of the storage tanks in August 2027.
“Our top priorities are protecting the environment, protecting public health, and also protecting the community,” said Rear Admiral Stephen Barnett, the commander of Navy Region Hawaii, on a call with reporters.
The plan covers 20 underground storage tanks, four surge tanks and the associated valves and piping systems at the facility.
The Navy also evaluated other options for closing the facility, including removing the tanks or filling them in but concluded they were more expensive and entailed a greater risk of damage to the surrounding area.
“This is the quickest and safest alternative and it’s going to minimize the impact to the environment,” said Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations, and Environment Meredith Berger on the call with reporters. “We’ve never done something of this size before, but we are committed to making sure we do it right.”
A series of failures last November led to the fuel leak at the Red Hill Bulk Storage Facility that sickened families who relied on a nearby well for their water, the Navy found in its investigation of the incident, released over summer.
On May 6, 2021, operators at the facility improperly began a fuel transfer that caused a surge of pressure within the system, the investigation found. The rapid buildup of pressure damaged two piping joints and led to a fuel spill. But the facility and its commanders did not realize or report the extent of the spill, believing it was only about 1,580 gallons.
In reality, approximately 20,000 gallons had spilled, the vast majority of which flowed into a fuel suppression system running through a tunnel system, the investigation found. The system’s retention lines held the fuel for six months, and its weight caused the PVC pipes to sag.
On November 20, 2021, a small underground cart on a facility train struck a valve on the sagging PVC pipes, causing the fuel in the lines to gush out.
For days, local Navy officials believed there was no threat to the environment, telling their commanders there was no risk to groundwater and no danger of environmental contamination, the Navy found.
But a week after the spill, the facility received its first complaint of a fuel smell in the water from a nearby resident. The following day, the facility received 37 more calls complaining of fuel in the water. The number of calls would quickly reach into the hundreds.
On November 28, the Navy shut down its Red Hill well after reports of people living on base suffering nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches and skin-related problems.
In its command investigation, the Navy found that the responses to the original May spill and the November spill were inadequate and that proper training and drills after the original leak could have identified the risk to the well.
A complex web of responsibilities and accountability left it unclear who was in charge of what, the Navy found, making it increasingly difficult to identify the best solutions and how to implement them as the situation worsened.