Oahu is an U.S island in the Central Pacific that is part of the Hawaiian island chain and home to the state capital Honolulu. Oahu is known for being the site of Pearl Harbor, Waikiki and surfing on the North shore.
The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility is a military fuel storage facility in Hawaii. Operated by the United States Navy, Red Hill supports U.S. military operations in the Pacific. Unlike any other facility in the United States, Red Hill can store up to 250 million gallons of fuel.
Built specifically for World War II in the 1940s, the facility is completely underground and holds 20 tanks (18 of which remain active today), each tank standing 250 feet tall and 100 feet wide—large enough for Aloha Tower to sit inside each tank.
The facility is located in Kapūkaki, known today as Red Hill, which is a mountain range located between Hālawa and Moanalua in the ʻewa district of Oʻahu.
100 feet directly below the facility sits the Southern Oʻahu Basal Aquifer—the primary drinking water source for the island. This aquifer alone provides drinking water for over 400,000 residents and visitors from Hālawa to Hawaiʻi Kai.
In 2014, 270,000 gallons leaked from tank 5. The latest leak dates back to May 2021, where 1,000 gallons of fuel from a single tank leaked upwards.
“Navy personnel responded to and contained a reported fuel release, initially assessed at approximately 1,000 gallons,” Navy Region Hawaii confirmed in an e-mail.
“As designed, the fuel release went into a containment system in the tunnel where the pipeline is located, and the fuel was recovered.”
While the drinking water is currently safe to consume, studies have detected traces of petroleum chemicals in the groundwater near the tanks.
“They have a long history of leaking. And the Navy itself said there was a 27.6% chance of the tanks leaking up to 30,000 gallons of fuel every single year,” said David Kimo Frankel, an attorney for the Sierra Club of Hawaii in a press release from the organization.
“It’s only going to get worse from here. The tanks need to be drained.”
In a Navy Risk and Vulnerability Assessment Summary, dated May 29 2019 the report cites “the possible frequency of an initiating event resulting in a fuel release between 1,000 to 30,000 gallons is 27,6%. This is an assessment of the probability of an event happening, and not that the event will actually happen”.
Studies over the years have detected petroleum contamination in the groundwater beneath the tanks.
The last reported instance was in 2014, when according to the EPA 27,000 gallons of fuel leaked from the facility. Tests of the water in wells surrounding the tanks showed a spike in levels of hydrocarbons in soil vapor and groundwater, but test results also ultimately concluded it was still within safe levels.
“This latest leak proves, once again, that the 78-year-old Red Hill fuel tanks are deteriorating and pose a serious threat to drinking water for hundreds of thousands of Oahu residents. It’s time to retire the tanks,” said Kyle Kajihiro of Hawaii Peace and Justice.
The Navy is currently cleaning up a fuel leak at its Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility that occurred late Thursday night and has begun investigating how it happened.
Earlier this month, the Hawaii Department of Health says the Navy informed it this morning of its intent to contest the state’s emergency order demanding that the Navy suspend operations at its Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, clean up contaminated drinking water at its Red Hill shaft, come up with a plan to drain the fuel from its 20 massive underground tanks and figure out what needs to be done to safely operate the facility.
The administrative order was announced by state health officials and Gov. David Ige on Monday evening. The Hawaii Department of Health said that the Navy needed to satisfy the order before seeking state permission to resume operations at its massive underground fuel farm.
“The Department of Health and Navy are negotiating the terms of a continuance and we will provide an update when one is available,” she said in a statement.
The order was issued in response to petroleum contamination in the Navy’s drinking water system, which serves about 93,000 people. Since Nov. 28, hundreds of military families, and several schools, have complained of a fuel-like smell, abnormal taste or sheen in their tap water. Residents have also reported nausea, diarrhea, skin rashes and headaches, symptoms that health officials say are consistent with exposure to petroleum contamination.
The investigation into the cause of the water contamination is ongoing.