US military begins draining Pearl Harbor pipelines

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii (AP) – The U.S. military said Monday it is ready to begin draining 1 million gallons (3.79 million liters) of fuel from three pipelines as part of an initial step toward closing a World War II fuel storage facility that leaked petroleum into Pearl Harbor’s tap water last year.

The pipelines run about 3 miles (4.83 kilometers) from the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in the mountains above Pearl Harbor down to the military base.

Starting Tuesday, the military will spend six days draining the pipelines one by one. Fuel is expected to move through the pipes for a total of 12 hours over the six days.

The fuel has been sitting in the pipes since the military suspended use of the Red Hill facility last year after it leaked kerosene into a drinking water well that serves 93,000 people in and around Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

Nearly 6,000 people, mostly military personnel and their families, sought medical attention for rashes, sores, nausea and other ailments after drinking and bathing in the contaminated water.

Soon after, the state Department of Health ordered the military to drain fuel from Red Hill and shut down the facility. The military says there are 104 million gallons left in the tanks themselves. It aims to remove this fuel by July 2024, after it has made necessary repairs to be able to safely empty the tanks.

Navy Rear Adm. John Wade, the commander of Joint Task Force Red Hill, said the state Department of Health and the US Environmental Protection Agency reviewed and approved the military’s plan to drain the pipelines. A third-party contractor also checked the plans, he said.

The most dangerous aspect of draining the pipelines is the potential for fuel to spill and seep into the aquifer, Wade told reporters at a news conference.

“So everything we’ve done, all the focus of effort for the planning and the exercises has been focused on reducing any chance of a spill,” he said.

The Red Hill facility is located just 30 meters above one of Honolulu’s main drinking water reservoirs.

Hawaii officials are concerned that last year’s spill contaminated the aquifer and are concerned that future spills will also contaminate the aquifer, which normally supplies more than 20% of the water consumed in Honolulu.

Wade said representatives from the Department of Health and the EPA will be on hand while the military drains the pipelines.

Task force members trained individually and as groups on how to respond if fuel is spilled while the pipelines are being drained, he said.

A Navy investigation found a series of errors over six months that caused last year’s spill.

It found that operator error caused a pipe to burst on May 6, 2021, when fuel was being transferred between tanks. This caused 21,000 gallons (80,000 liters) of fuel to spill. Most of it flowed into a fire line and sat there for six months, causing the line to sink.

Then on November 20, a wagon rammed into the hanging line, releasing 20,000 gallons (75,700 liters) of fuel. One team thought they had recovered all of this fuel, but they missed about 5,000 gallons (19,000 liters). Fuel they missed ran into a French drain and from there into the drinking water well.

Fuel from the three pipelines will go to above-ground storage tanks and fuel barges, which will then supply Air Force jets and Navy ships at the base, officials said.

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