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Pentagon speeds up timeline for defueling Red Hill by several months

CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / JAN. 28
                                The U.S. Department of Defense said today it has sped up its timeline for draining the Navy’s underground Red Hill fuel tanks by about five months. Shown here, Navy officials lead a media tour of the Red Hill Shaft in Halawa in January.
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CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / JAN. 28

The U.S. Department of Defense said today it has sped up its timeline for draining the Navy’s underground Red Hill fuel tanks by about five months. Shown here, Navy officials lead a media tour of the Red Hill Shaft in Halawa in January.

The U.S. Department of Defense says it has sped up its timeline for draining the Navy’s underground Red Hill fuel tanks by about five months and now expects that the work can be completed by July 2024.

The projection is part of the military’s supplemental defueling plan submitted to the Hawaii Department of Health today. The DOD had essentially missed its original June 30 deadline set by DOH, submitting a 20-page document that military officials acknowledged at the time was inadequate.

DOH rejected that plan due to its lack of details, saying that it was “like turning in a homework assignment you know is incomplete just to meet a deadline.”

The new 39-page supplemental plan is also lacking. The Pentagon said that another supplement will be submitted to DOH later this month that will include analysis from additional studies that it didn’t receive in time to incorporate.

The Pentagon had previously estimated that it would take until the end of 2024 to defuel the tanks, citing needed infrastructure repairs, staff training and supply chain disruptions. The Hawaii Sierra Club and Honolulu Board of Water Supply expressed alarm at the lengthy timeline, saying it raised the risk of more leaks.

The Defense Department said it was able to shorten the estimated time by condensing the repair timeline, finding activities that could be done simultaneously and reducing the final phase when the tanks would actually be drained from eight months to about five months. The plan includes details about removing fuel from pipes, infrastructure repairs, training updates and comments addressing DOH’s feedback from the first report.

“This plan represents considerable work by our DoD and Navy team along with the regulators, and we remain completely focused on the safe and expeditious defueling of the facility,” said Rear Adm. Steve Barnett, commander, Navy Region Hawaii, in a press release. “As we move forward, we will continually refine and improve this plan, and keep stakeholders and the community informed throughout the process. Every action we take must protect the environment and the community.”

DOH said it will comment on the plan once it has finished reviewing it, while stressing that the tanks need to be drained as quickly and safely as possible.

“There is a continued threat to our aquifer and residents every day that fuel remains in the Red Hill tanks,” said DOH Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathleen Ho said in a statement. “As we review this submission, it is our full expectation that it will have the requisite amount of detail to ensure defueling work can begin.”

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said in a statement that shutting down the facility cannot be delayed and that a Joint Task Force that DOD said will be overseeing the defueling needs to be in place.

“While the updated plan to close the facility sooner is a step in the right direction, DoD must make it a priority to move fast and permanently shut down Red Hill as quickly as possible,” he said. “We also need the Joint Task Force to become fully operational. That means the Secretary of Defense must act quickly and name its commander, a role that will serve as DoD’s on-the-ground leader responsible for working with state and local officials to safely defuel the tanks.”

The Pentagon ordered the Red Hill facility be permanently shut down earlier this year after a fuel leak from the facility contaminated the Navy’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam drinking water system, sickening military families and spurring community outrage.

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The Pentagon’s supplemental defueling plan can be read here.

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