In an effort to pursue United States Military operations in the Pacific during World War II, the US government commissioned the installation of 20 fuel tanks on the Island of O‘ahu. The fuel tanks are situated underground in Ko‘olau Range, a mountain range in the middle-east portion of the island. In 2014, one of the 18 currently active fuel tanks just outside the metropolitan area of Honolulu, Hawai‘i leaked approximately 27,000 gallons of fuel (Jedra). Just recently, another 1000 gallon fuel leak was reported by the Navy. The facility is only 100 feet above the main water supply of Honolulu. After the leak, negotiation ensued between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Hawai‘i Department of Health (HIDOH), and the Navy and Defense Logistics Agency (DLA). The agreement, known as the Administrative Order of Consent (AOC) between the various departments, required that the Navy evaluate investigation and remediation techniques; monitor existing contamination; and evaluate and implement structural upgrades to the tanks among other requirements (“Red Hill”). Social advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club of Hawai‘i have called for the decommissioning and replacement of the 18 active tanks (Sierra Club staff). The military however feels that it is necessary to wait until 2045 to decommission the tanks or until a scientific breakthrough occurs where they can reinforce the tanks — something they are calling a double-wall efficiency equivalent (Navy 6). Although the military’s position is to wait for alternatives to double wall reinforcement until 2045, replacing the tanks with a tank-within-a-tank solution is faster to replace than reinforcing the current tanks and safer for the island of O‘ahu’s water supply.
The current condition of the fuel tanks is dangerous for O‘ahu residents. In addition to the 37,000 gallon fuel leak in 2014, the Navy estimates that an additional 1.2 million gallons of fuel has leaked from the tanks since (Cocke). And the leaks have larger consequences than digging into the Earth; it has also contaminated Honolulu’s main water aquifer. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Navy took samples in the areas surrounding the leaking tank after the 2014 leak and found that there was a spike in hydrocarbons in the nearby groundwater (“About the 2014”). Hydrocarbons are a middle distillate that appear in the fuel contained in Red Hill. And although the water is still within federal guidelines for consumption, it is not a good signal of the tank’s effects on the environment and safety of residents.
Cases where the US Navy has decided to replace or upgrade degrading fuel storage is not unheard of. In 2005, in response to a leakage of several million gallons of fuel in Point Loma, the US Navy recommended to the California Coastal Commission that the World War II era tanks be replaced (Stanford). It cost eight years and $154 million dollars to bring all tanks above ground and was funded by the DLA (Jedra). In another case, a Naval Base in Kitsap County is expected to modernize their World War II era fuel facilities as soon as this year (Stanford). In neither of the two cases were the fuel tankers above the main water supply for entire cities, like Red Hill is.
Despite this, the US military — particularly the Navy — hopes to keep the tanks underground and in continued operation for as long as possible. In a timeline to the HIDOH and EPA, the Navy stated that they expect to either come up with a better technology to contain the fuel (something known as “double-wall equivalency”) or to entirely remove it by 2045 (Navy 6). Environmental non-profits such as the Sierra Club of Hawai‘i have refuted this timeline saying, “The plan also commits to some undefined, undetermined ‘double-wall equivalency’ solution or relocation of the tanks ‘around 2045’– which proposes to extend the deadline to upgrade the tanks another 7 years using some unknown, future technology that is not actually a double-walled solution.” The seven year extension is in reference to the AOC which mandates that the Red Hill tanks be completely vacated by 2037. Additionally, the tanks are in dire need for repairs. Corrosion from the tank’s surface is so extensive that in some areas around the facility, the thickness of the walls has decreased by over ⅔ the original thickness when first installed (Sierra Club staff). To know the current state of the tanks, and to request that they be kept in place for another 24 years poses significant health hazards for the surrounding water and the people that consume it.
In response to the mounting public pressure to fix the leak and to ensure compliance with the AOC, the Navy released six options to contain the fuel. Two of the options are as follows: the Navy’s preferred plan is to coat the bottom of the existing tank with epoxy and continue to monitor for leaks. In contrast, the preferred option among environmental groups is to install a new tank lining within the existing tanks (a tank-within-a-tank) and coat the outer tank entirely with epoxy (Sierra Club staff). Given the tank’s age and declining physical state, it is necessary to take all precautionary measures to ensure that the tank does not leak into the surrounding groundwater. Simply lining the bottom of the existing tanks with a coat of epoxy does little to ensure another leak does not happen.
As options are weighed out, one thing is clear — keeping such a necessary aquifer clean and free of gasoline is absolutely necessary. And the best option to make that happen is with a tank-within-a-tank system or complete relocation. The current facility is demonstrably unsafe and in continual physical degradation. The tanks keep leaking because the Navy is in constant refusal to take any necessary steps to stop it from doing so. Replacement or modernization of existing fuel storage is not unheard of in the Navy, and in this case the stakes are higher than before.
I want to reiterate — this fuel storage facility is so close to the main water supply of the entire island of O‘ahu that you could do a 1/3rd of a 100-meter dash from the bottom of the tanks to the top of the water supply. In other words, it would take Usain Bolt just over 3 seconds to go from the tanks to the water. This is dangerous, and the Navy is playing an irreversible game with a problem that they have the time, money, and other resources to fix.
Not Formatted Works Cited for the curious:
“About the 2014 Fuel Release at Red Hill.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 8 Nov. 2017, www.epa.gov/red-hill/about-2014-fuel-release-red-hill.
Cocke, Sophie. “Navy Eyes New 2045 Deadline for Red Hill Tank Improvements.” Advertiser, 18 Oct. 2019, www.staradvertiser.com/2019/10/18/hawaii-news/navy-eyes-new-2045-deadline-for-red-hill-tank-improvements/.
Cole, William. “Red Hill Tank That Leaked Fuel Being Brought Back into Service.” Star Advertiser, 11 Mar. 2020, www.staradvertiser.com/2020/03/11/breaking-news/red-hill-tank-that-leaked-fuel-being-brought-back-into-service/.
EPA, and HIDOH. “Response to Corrosion and Metal Fatigue Practices, Destructive Testing Results Report, Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility (Red Hill), Joint Base Pearl Harbor- Hickam, Oahu, Hawaii.” Received by Captain Marc Delao, 16 Mar. 2020.
Environmental Protection Agency. Evaluating Fuel Leak And Aging Infrastructure At Red Hill, Hawaii, The Largest Underground Fuel Storage Facility In The United States, 2017.
Jedra, Christina. “The Navy Replaced Its Leaky Fuel Tanks In California. Why Not Oahu? .” Honolulu Civil Beat, 20 May 2020, www.civilbeat.org/2020/05/the-navy-replaced-its-leaky-fuel-tanks-in-california-why-not-oahu/.
Kubota, Lisa. “Critics Still Not Appeased by State’s Proposed Changes for Red Hill Fuel Tanks.” Hawaii News Now, 3 Dec. 2019, www.hawaiinewsnow.com/2019/12/03/critics-still-not-appeased-by-states-proposed-changes-red-hill-fuel-tanks/.
Navy. “TANK UPGRADE ALTERNATIVES (‘TUA’) AND RELEASE DETECTION DECISION DOCUMENT FOR THE RED HILL ADMINISTRATIVE ORDER ON CONSENT (‘AOC’) STATEMENT OF WORK (‘SOW’) SECTIONS 3 AND 4.” Received by Jeff Scott and Bruce Anderson, 9 Sept. 2019.
“Red Hill Administrative Order on Consent.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 10 Feb. 2021, www.epa.gov/red-hill/red-hill-administrative-order-consent.
Board of Water Supply. “Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage.” Red Hill Bulk Fuel Tanks — Board of Water Supply, 2021, www.boardofwatersupply.com/news-events/news-and-updates/red-hill-bulk-fuel-storage-facility.
Sierra Club staff. “Red Hill Water Security.” Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi, sierraclubhawaii.org/redhill.
Stanford, Julianne. “Proposal to Replace WWII-Era Fuel Storage Tanks at Naval Base Kitsap-Manchester Approved.” Kitsap Sun, Kitsap, 14 Nov. 2018, www.kitsapsun.com/story/news/local/navy/2018/11/13/navy-base-washington-kitsap-manchester-wwii-fuel-tank-project/1980478002/.
Web Staff. “Bill Prohibiting Underground Fuel Storage Tanks under Red Hill Passes Senate Committee Hearing.” KITV Channel 4, 11 Feb. 2020, www.kitv.com/story/41688266/bill-prohibiting-underground-fuel-storage-tanks-under-red-hill-passes-senate-committee-hearing.
Wyatt, Olson, 2019. “Navy’s Underground Fuel Tanks in Hawaii Are Impenetrable to Attack — and That’s the Problem.” Stars and Stripes, 24 Oct. 2019, www.stripes.com/news/pacific/navy-s-underground-fuel-tanks-in-hawaii-are-impenetrable-to-attack-and-that-s-the-problem-1.604488.