The Environmental Protection Agency announced on Tuesday that it approved a Defense Department initiative to begin defueling an antiquated Hawaii storage facility, nearly two years after a spill leaked into a water well that serves more than 90,000 people.
A joint task force submitted a report to the EPA prior to defueling to affirm that storage repairs at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility had been completed. Tank tightness of the pumps was tested and approved, as were EPA-standard rapid response measures and countermeasures in the event another spill occurred ahead of the facility’s eventual closure. The Honolulu Star Advertiser first confirmed the EPA’s decision.
Controversy has surrounded Red Hill, located at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, since November 2021. At that time, residents in and near Pearl Harbor reported that their drinking water smelled like fuel, but Navy officials maintained the water was safe to consume. Samples tested at a laboratory the following month, however, found petroleum products in the water.
Nearly 6,000 personnel, mostly military families, sought medical attention for rashes, sores, nausea and other ailments after being exposed to the contaminated water.
The Hawaii Department of Health later issued an emergency order, which forced the Navy to shutdown operations at the World War II-era facility. The Pentagon announced in October 2022 that it had started draining one million gallons of fuel from three pipelines in an initial step toward closing the facility.
Nearly 1,500 people had filed administrative claims against the Navy as of late June. There is also a pending federal lawsuit with nearly 300 plaintiffs.
“We are aiming for a new normal: One where this never happens again,” Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said in a news release in December 2021. “The Department is determined and committed to making the necessary changes. We can and will take care of our people, while also preserving and protecting our national security interests in the Pacific and at home.”
In total, more than 93,000 individuals from 9,715 households in 19 different communities on the Navy water system were affected by the spill. Some Hawaiian civilians living in homes supplied by the service’s water system were also impacted.
Defeuling of Red Hill is expected to begin Oct. 16.
Zamone “Z” Perez is a rapid response reporter and podcast producer at Defense News and Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched international ethics and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.