Joint Task Force Red Hill, the military organization tasked with defueling the massive fuel tanks at the Navy’s underground Red Hill fuel facility, has expanded its scope of operations after a spill of toxic firefighting foam in November. Vice Adm. John Wade, the officer leading the task force, made the announcement during a panel at the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce’s Military Affairs Council Partnership Conference on Wednesday.
JTF Red Hill originally was formed to focus entirely on defueling the tanks, which sit just 100 feet above a critical aquifer that most of Honolulu depends on for drinking water, with the shutdown of the facility and day-to-day operations of the site being handled by other military organizations and contractors.
“Now, not one activity occurs in that building without a review by my team and approval by me, ” said Wade. “If any activity has high risk, there’s a concept of operations that’s briefed to me personally. And if it says a significant level, it is briefed to Admiral (John ) Aquilino with a report to the secretary of defense.”
Wade said that he also has requested more manpower on the site to provide more oversight of day-to-day operations of the facility, telling attendees at the conference “there has not been what I would call sufficient controls … there have been activities throughout the facility, again, all well-intentioned, but by different organizations with no integrated schedule. And that is a challenge risk to safety, to personnel, and also for potential mishaps.”
The November spill released at least 1, 300 gallons of concentrated aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, which is used to suppress fuel fires. AFFF contains perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, often referred to as “forever chemicals ” because they degrade so slowly in the environment. Chronic exposure to the chemicals has been linked to cancer and other health problems, prompting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2022 to tighten restrictions on the chemicals.
The spill occurred shortly after JTF Red Hill touted the successful “unpacking ” of 1 million gallons of fuel from the pipeline that connects the Red Hill tanks to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. State and federal officials say that the pipelines, tanks and other infrastructure at the World War II-era Red Hill facility require extensive repairs and upgrades before the fuel from the tanks—which currently hold more than 100 million gallons—can be safely removed.
Wade said that after the unpacking and ramping up JTF Red Hill’s outreach efforts, “we had this very, very unfortunate—and preventable mishap—which I think had two big implications. One, it highlighted valid safety concerns throughout the community. And then second, as far as rebuilding trust, we took so many steps backwards. It shouldn’t have happened.”
Navy leaders in Hawaii have been heavily criticized for their handling of Red Hill since a 2014 spill of fuel from the facility’s Tank 5. But it wasn’t until November 2021 when fuel from the facility tainted the Navy’s water system on Oahu that serves 93, 000 people that the state demanded they drain the tanks. After resisting a state emergency order for months, in March 2022 the Pentagon finally agreed to permanently defuel the tanks and eventually set up JTF Red Hill.
Wade said that he recently received a finished investigation into the AFFF spill by Maj. Gen. Richard J. Heitkamp of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after extending the deadline for the report’s completion last week. Wade said that he is reviewing it and plans to release it to the public soon. The Navy has refused to release video of the spill—which it first said wasn’t caught on tape but later confirmed that it was—until the investigation is complete. Its refusal is based on grounds that releasing it would compromise the investigation, the Navy said. Navy officials did not respond to questions regarding how the footage’s release would compromise the investigation.
Medical response The contamination of the Navy water system affected service members from each military branch, military family members and civilians living in former military housing areas on the Navy system. Many experienced ailments from rashes to digestive and respiratory problems—some serious enough to be hospitalized. Now many say more than a year later they continue to experience symptoms they believe is tied to their exposure.
Rear Adm. Brandon Taylor, public health chief at the Defense Health Agency in Washington, D.C., sat on the panel and discussed the medical response. He said that many service members and their families have moved on to new assignments outside of Hawaii but continue to exhibit symptoms and that “it’s clear that DHA must prepare military health care providers worldwide ” to address their needs.
But many local civilian families affected are not eligible for military health care despite being exposed to Navy fuel and have had to pay for treatment out of pocket. Taylor said that “expanding eligibility has significant challenges ” but that military officials in Washington are working through the bureaucracy and “are initiating the work to open the Red Hill registry to non-(military ) affiliated Hawaii residents who were also exposed to fuel contamination.”
The Red Hill fuel tanks are slated to be empty no later than the summer of 2024, though Wade said he is looking for ways to expedite the process. Navy officials estimate that the total shutdown of the facility after defueling will take about three years. The fuel itself is to be redistributed to military facilities and fuel tankers across the Pacific region to support ongoing operations.
Strategic center At the conference, officials stressed that they consider Hawaii a key strategic center in a world wrought with geopolitical tension and conflict. In the keynote address, Aquilino, the military’s top officer in the region, said that the current geopolitical landscape “is the most dangerous I’ve seen in 39 years of doing this business.”
“We have the most cooperation and coordination between authoritarian nations that we’ve seen since World War II, ” said Aquilino. “A no-limits relationship articulated by (Chinese ) President Xi Jinping and (Russian ) President (Vladimir ) Putin. ( North Korea ) supporting the Russian war in Ukraine with weapons and other support. Well, that’s a pretty dangerous place that we haven’t lived in before.”
He added that “my commitment to my team, and every one of our people, is I will not send anyone forward to do any mission that they’re not trained and prepared to do. Which means the critical nature of all the things we do in Hawaii are more important, whether it be the Kauai missile range … whether it be ( Pohakuloa Training Area ) or the other places that we are working to extend and deliver the capability in Hawaii to train our forces.”
The military is currently preparing for a potential fight to hold on to land leases for training areas that expire in 2029.
“I think it’s important not to wait until 2029 to have those conversations, ” Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke said during the conference. “It’s an opportunity for us to learn as much as we can : educate ourselves, educate each other, educate the population (on the ) importance of having a military partner here in the Indo-Pacific … it’s not just about national security. It’s about world security.”
State officials have increasingly leaned on military spending to prop up Hawaii’s economy. When the COVID-19 pandemic began and tourism nose-dived, defense spending was one of the few reliable income flows into the state. Military Affairs Council Vice President Jason Chung said that as many as 20 % of Hawaii residents are connected to the military either through direct service, family ties or employment.
State Senate President Ron Kouchi said that “the stark reality that we found out through COVID is that being in the middle of the Pacific—with shipping challenges, the cost of fuel and everything else—there are few options that we can utilize to diversify our economy, and the military is a huge part of that economy here in Hawaii. And so as leader of the Senate, as someone who needs to get a balanced budget and find money for all of the things that my community wants, I appreciate all of the dollars that are spent here.”
But the Red Hill crisis has thrown that relationship very much into question for many Hawaii residents. Wade told attendees “how we do—what we do—with Red Hill will also have implications with the land lease and everything else that’s involved here … I can’t just sit there and just talk about defueling. That’s not fair to the community. We have to be able to talk about closure, it’s connected. We have to talk about environmental remediation, clean water. It’s all connected.”
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