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US military to close fuel storage facility in Hawaii where water was contaminated by leak

By Ellie Kaufman, CNN

The Department of Defense will close the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Hawaii permanently, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Monday.

The facility was temporarily closed after water was contaminated by a petroleum leak from the facility that sickened military families and children in Hawaii in November and left people in the local community without safe drinking water.

The facility will be defueled and closed permanently, Kirby said. The fuel will be repositioned in “a few locations,” Kirby said.

The fuel facility sits 100 feet above the Red Hill aquifer, which supplies drinking water to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and other parts of Hawaii. Nearly 1 million people on Oahu rely on it for water, according to the Hawaii Board of Water Supply.

On November 28, the Navy shut down the well after reports of people on base suffering nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches and skin-related problems. More than 4,000 families were relocated from their homes, according to the Pentagon.

Testing revealed petroleum hydrocarbons and vapors in the water, the Navy said.

The Hawaii Department of Health recommended in December that all Navy water system users stop using their water for drinking, cooking or oral hygiene, including for pets.

Kirby said the military is committed to mitigating the impacts of the November incident.

“We are restoring safe drinking water to all residents, and we’re providing best in class sampling and testing to ensure the continued safety of the drinking water,” Kirby said.

The Commander of US Pacific Fleet has ordered a “command investigation” into the November incident, Kirby added.

“When that review is complete, the Navy will publicly release the report and continue to work closely with the Department of Health in Hawaii about pursuing follow on actions, that work continues,” Kirby said.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement that closing the facility is “the right thing to do.”

“When we use land for military purposes, at home or abroad, we commit to being good stewards of that resource. Closing Red Hill meets that commitment,” he said.

The Defense Department will also create an “environmental mitigation plan” to address any future contamination concerns, Austin said.

“We will continue our work with the Hawaii Department of Health, national and local elected officials, and other community leaders, to clean up the water at the Red Hill well. And we will develop an environmental mitigation plan to address any future contamination concerns,” he said.

Hawaii’s state health department ordered the Navy in December to halt operations at the fuel storage facility. The department also demanded the Navy install a drinking water treatment system at the Red Hill well; submit a plan to assess system integrity; and defuel the Red Hill underground storage tanks within 30 days of corrective action, Gov. David Ige said.

The Navy initially said it would contest the health department’s order but would pause operations. In January, the Navy agreed to follow the health department’s order.

The fuel facility supports US military operations from all branches of service in the Pacific, according to the Navy.

Built during World War II, the Red Hill facility could store up to 250 million gallons of fuel in 20 steel-lined underground storage tanks encased in concrete.

A history of fuel leaks

Records show a history of fuel leaks plaguing Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in the past decade, with the most recent leak occurring 11 days before the Navy announced it had discovered contamination in the Red Hill well.

Another incident in May involved the release of more than 1,600 gallons of jet fuel from a pipeline inside the storage facility, according to the Navy.

“An investigation determined that operator error caused the release of 1,618 gallons of jet fuel (JP-5) from a pipeline inside the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility (RHBFSF) on May 6, 2021,” the Navy said. “The release was not from the fuel tanks.”

In October, the Hawaii Department of Health cited the Navy for violations related to operation and maintenance of the facility, records show. The fines and violations resulted from a routine inspection from September 28, 2020, through October 9, 2020, according to the health department.

The Notice of Violation and Order consisted of five counts with a total penalty amounting to $325,182, the Hawaii Department of Health said in a news release.

In the release, the health department said the five counts were:

  • Failure to operate and maintain ongoing corrosion protection to metal components of the portion of the Navy’s tank and piping that contain regulated substances and are in contact with the ground
  • Failure to perform line tightness testing of repaired piping before return to service
  • Failure to perform an annual liquid tightness test on spill prevention equipment to prevent releases to the environment
  • Failure to perform an adequate visual walkthrough inspection of hydrant pits
  • Failure to maintain adequate release detection for two double-walled underground product recovery storage tanks

In January 2014, during the refueling of a tank, the Navy identified a fuel release estimated at up to 27,000 gallons of JP-8 jet fuel, according to the Hawaii DOH.

The US Navy “subsequently drained the tank and collected samples from existing monitoring wells. Results taken in and around Tank 5 indicated increases of hydrocarbons in soil vapor and groundwater,” the health department said.

At the time, the agency said the drinking water was in compliance with federal and state “concentrations for drinking water both before and after the January 2014 release.”

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CNN’s Steve Almasy, Chris Boyette, Holly Yan, Natasha Chen, Amy Simonson and Tina Burnside, contributed to this report.

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