The Secretary of Defense today announced a decision to defuel and permanently close the Red Hill bulk fuel storage facility in Hawaiʻi.
In a statement released today, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said an action plan for the safe and expeditious defueling will be provided no later than May 31, by the Secretary of the Navy and Director of the Defense Logistics Agency. He estimated a target date for completion at 12 months.
“Then, as soon as we have made corrective actions to ensure that defueling will be safe, we will begin defueling. Then we will move to permanently close the Red Hill facility, including conducting any and all necessary environmental remediation around the facility,” Secretary of Defense Austin said.
He continued saying:
“Centrally-located bulk fuel storage of this magnitude likely made sense in 1943, when Red Hill was built. And Red Hill has served our armed forces well for many decades. But it makes a lot less sense now. The distributed and dynamic nature of our force posture in the Indo-Pacific, the sophisticated threats we face, and the technology available to us demand an equally advanced and resilient fueling capability. To a large degree, we already avail ourselves of dispersed fueling at sea and ashore, permanent and rotational. We will now expand and accelerate that strategic distribution.”
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby briefed the news media this morning on the announcement, saying the decision directs the Secretary of the Navy in coordination with the commander of the US Indo Pacific Command to take all steps necessary to defuel and to permanently close the Red Hill bulk fuel storage facility.
“I know many of you are tracking the importance that leaders across the Department of Defense have placed on that November leak, and the contamination that resulted from it,” said Press Secretary Kirby. “The Secretary, the Deputy Secretary, leaders from across the Department of Defense and Navy, as well as Indo Pacific Command remain very, very focused on this issue and the impact that it’s had on families, communities, and of course our responsibilities in both national security, and being good stewards of our resources and the environment.”
The Department of Defense launched a review of the facility’s long-term future. Press Secretary Kirby outlined three areas of focus:
- National Security: “We will defuel Red Hill and position the fuel to land in afloat locations. This will meet our national security objectives by better positioning the United States to meet future challenges in the Pacific Region, while ensuring environmental stewardship and protecting the population.”
- Drinking Water Safety: “As the Secretary noted, we’re going to be able to take care of our people and the community. We are committed to mitigating impacts of the November incident, and we are restoring safe drinking water to all affected residents by providing best-in-class sampling and testing to ensure the continued safety of the drinking water.”
- Environmental Mitigation: “We are going to complete environmental mitigation efforts for the Red Hill drinking water well and any other impacted areas and continue to engage the community on land use.”
The Commander of the Pacific Fleet directed a Command investigation into the releases and contamination of the water supply. When that review is complete, Kirby said the Navy will publicly release the report and continue to work closely with the Department of Health in Hawaiʻi about pursuing follow on actions.
“The Secretary decision is not considered by the Department to be some sort of quick fix. We have work to do. We know that. Across the enterprise with elected officials from Hawaiʻi, and local organizations, and of course with our military families, many of whom have suffered as a result of that leak and that contamination,” said Kirby.
Vowing to update the public when actions are taken, Kirby said, “We do believe that this decision by the Secretary today marks a significant first step in the path forward.”
When asked by media about the cost of defeuling Red Hill, Kirby said he couldn’t put a price on the planned operation. “The impact to families is obviously foremost on everybody’s mind… but as I said… taking care of these folks is paramount concern to him,” said Kirby.
Environmental groups remain vigilant despite DoD announcement
A group of organizers identifying themselves as Oʻahu Water Protectors said they remain vigilant despite today’s announcement saying the facility “leaked thousands of gallons of fuel into O’ahu’s sole source aquifer in 2021.”
“This announcement is the culmination of months of organizing, education and the application of political pressure by community advocacy groups like OWP, Sierra Club, Hawai’i Peace and Justice, Ka’ohewai and many others,” the group said in a statement.
“Despite the good news, there remains a lack of trust in the US Navy and a long list of concerns – the most pressing of which is the lengthy timeline for defueling the 80-year-old tanks which the DOD claims will take at least a year. Despite today’s good news, OWP members remain vigilant and will continue our work to advocate for a definitive end to the water crisis which has displaced 9,000 families and contaminated the water of 93,000 O’ahu homes,” according to the group.
OWP released a list of seven demands which include: shutting down the facility as soon as possible, and demanding that the government not relocate Red Hill operations on Oʻahu or any other island.
Other demands are: Immediately withdraw the appeals to the Emergency Order to defuel and the Underground Storage Tank permit application; Determine what it’s going to cost and secure funding necessary to pay for remediation; Plan for and execute full remediation of aquifer and contaminated sites; Expediently reimburse affected families for all healthcare costs and all personal expenses connected to the Navy’s water contamination; and Establish a Community Oversight Board composed entirely of people who have advocated for the shut down of Red Hill.
“Admitting you have a problem is just step one in the journey to fixing it,” said Wayne Tanaka, Sierra Club of Hawai‘i’s chapter director. “We all need to continue to hold the Navy accountable not just in this promise to defuel and shut down Red Hill, but to address the harms that have occurred and will continue to occur due to the mess it created, and to provide us with the resources necessary to pull us out of the ongoing contamination crisis.”
Earthjustice attorney David Henkin also weighed in saying, “Now, the Navy needs to drop its appeals of the Department of Health’s emergency order requiring defueling of the Red Hill tanks, and withdraw its application for a permit to keep operating the polluting facility.”
“Being good stewards of Hawaiʻi’s natural resources is the expectation for all that use Hawaiian lands and water,” said Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board Chair Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey, of Maui. “There is still difficult work ahead as this facility is defueled and shut down and we must all continue to monitor the situation. OHA is dedicated to advocating, promoting, and demonstrating appropriate, responsible, and just wai stewardship practices and values throughout Hawaiʻi, mutually empowering OHA and communities to ʻauamo (carry) the shared responsibility of protecting and ensuring the proper management of our water resources.”
Local government leaders respond with support
Gov. David Ige said: “This is great news for the people of Hawaiʻi. Our national defense begins with the health and safety of our people, and there are better solutions for strategic fueling today than there were when the Red Hill storage facility was built. We look forward to working with the Navy to safely defuel and permanently close the storage facility.”
US Senator Brian Schatz said: “There will be challenges ahead, but make no mistake: Red Hill will be shut down. In order to implement this decision, we’re going to have to provide additional resources and hold DoD’s feet to the fire through congressional oversight. I will continue to work with our federal and state partners to see this through.”
Senator Schatz, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, secured $100 million in federal funding to defuel the tanks last month and introduced legislation in the Senate to permanently shut down Red Hill following the contamination of water in the surrounding area.
US Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), said she strongly supports the DoD decision to close Red Hill.
“I have said from day one that ensuring the health and safety of the residents of Oʻahu is my top priority and I share the community’s big sigh of relief with this news,” said Sen. Hirono. “There is a lot of work to do, including defueling the tanks safely and the long term cleanup efforts that will be required to close down the facility. I will continue to work very closely with the DoD, the Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Hawaii to make sure this happens.”
Additionally, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Hirono said she will work closely with DoD to ensure the Department has the resources to develop and implement a long-term plan “to ensure we are able to meet the strategic fuel reserve needs of the Indo-Pacific Region and protect national security as the nation shifts to a more distributed force posture in the Pacific.”
US Congressman Ed Case (HI-01) said the announcement is “exactly the right decision for assuring both safe
drinking water and national security.”
“It is painfully clear that protecting the natural resource of our aquifer cannot be assured through the continuation of Red Hill. It is also clear that other fuel storage distribution strategies will fulfill our real national security needs in this difficult century for the Indo-Pacific,” said Rep. Case.
Congressman Case said he’s convinced of the Defense Department’s “good-faith commitment” to work through it as
quickly and safely as possible.
State House Speaker Scott K. Saiki said, “The US Department of Defense’s decision to permanently close Red Hill is the right decision. This decision will protect Oahu’s water supply and residents. The House of Representatives will work with the Navy to implement the closure.”
The Hawaiʻi Department of Health issued a statement saying the DOH is pleased with the decision.
Director of Health Dr. Elizabeth Char, FACEP said, “This decision comes late for the Navy water system users who have borne the greatest burden of this humanitarian disaster, but it’s nevertheless reassuring that the imminent threat posed by this troubled facility will finally be addressed. We are anxiously awaiting receipt of the DOD’s written plan and a path forward to ensure independence of the Navy’s contractor.”
Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathleen Ho said, “We’re encouraged by the Secretary of Defense’s promise of an action plan for safe and expeditious defueling of the Red Hill facility. On behalf of the people and environment of Hawaiʻi, we will remain vigilant to hold the Navy accountable to render the drinking water supply safe and to address future contamination concerns.”
Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said he received a personal phone call this morning from Admiral John C. Aquilino, Commander, United States Indo-Pacific Command, from Washington, D.C.
Mayor Blangiardi informed Admiral Aquilino that he welcomed the Secretary’s decision and he assured the Admiral “the City and County of Honolulu will assist and do everything within its power to implement this decision as quickly as possible.”
Senator Jarrett Keohokalole, chair of the Senate Committee on Health also applauded the decision.
“Now we can begin the difficult work with the Navy of addressing impacts to our communities and water resources without worrying about future spills from Red Hill. For months, elected officials at every level of government have called upon the federal government to close the facility and I am pleased that our voices were finally heard today by the Pentagon,” said Sen. Keohokalole.
EPA Administrator welcomes announcement, continues investigation
EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said he welcomes the announcement about Red Hill.
“EPA is committed to working collaboratively with our state and federal partners to ensure clean drinking water for the people of Oʻahu,” said Regan. “As the Department of Defense moves forward with the defueling and closure of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, EPA will continue to provide assistance and oversight. We will also work with the Department of Defense to make sure the public understands and has confidence in the process, knowing that EPA will remain involved.”
In recent weeks, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan, Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe, and Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest Martha Guzman have all visited Oʻahu and the Red Hill facility.
“EPA has been on the ground with an emergency response team since the earliest days of the drinking water response at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and the adjacent Aliamanu Military Reservation and Red Hill Housing Army Complex,” said Regan.
According to Regan, as part of EPA’s ongoing regulatory and oversight responsibilities, EPA will continue with its underground storage tank investigation and Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure and Facility Response Plan investigation at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam to assess compliance with regulations governing underground storage tanks, aboveground tanks, and associated fuel transfer piping.
The EPA will also oversee operations related to the newly announced defueling operation to ensure that it is conducted in an environmentally sound manner.