Military oil reserves pollute Red Hill water supply

Shea Brown, News

Infographic made with Canva by Shea Brown.

The U.S. Dept. of Defense now says Red Hill will be drained five months earlier than projected by July 2024. This follows an announcement on Wednesday, Sept. 7, by the Hawaii Dept. of Health that Red Hill pipelines hold 1 million gallons of fuel.

To date, 14,000 gallons of fuel from a Navy fuel storage facility at Red Hill have been found in the water supply of thousands of Oahu residents. 

According to NPR, the Navy received hundreds of complaints from families smelling a “fuel or gasoline-like odor” and seeing an oily film in tap water.  A few people reported they experienced cramps and vomiting after drinking water from their tap.

The water showed petroleum levels 350 times higher than the safe level when tested, according to the Hawaii Department of Health.

Rear Admiral Blake Converse announced during a town hall meeting at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam that officials were working to provide a temporary lodging allowance for residents of the base to seek hotel rooms. Converse also said the Navy would set up water distribution sites and offer medical screenings for residents affected by the crisis. 

The source of the leak, first reported on Nov. 21, 2021, is a fuel storage facility that sits 100 feet above a drinking water aquifer that supplies a majority of Oahu with clean water. Built during World War II, the storage system includes 20 tanks that can each hold 12.5 million gallons of fuel. 

Oil leaks have been happening for years, according to the Sierra Club, with 27,000 gallons of oil leaking out of the facility in January 2014. The environmental organization also claims Red Hill has leaked out approximately 180,000 gallons of fuel over the course of almost 75 years.

“We have been working for eight years to ring the alarm bells that this facility needs to be addressed and needs to be either upgraded or completely removed,” Ernest Lau, Manager and Chief Engineer of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, explained in an interview with PBS. “But for the last eight years, our voices haven’t been heard.”

Navy officials said they will comply with the Department of Health’s order to suspend operations at Red Hill and drain the fuel tanks.

“The Department is determined and committed to making the necessary changes,” Carlos Del Toro, Secretary of the Navy, said during a press conference on Dec. 8, 2022. “We can and will take care of our people, while also preserving and protecting our national security interests in the Pacific and at home.”