Millions of litres of fuel drained after leak at a storage facility poisoned thousands of people

By John Mercury March 29, 2024

The US military has finished draining millions of litres of fuel from a hidden government storage installation in Hawaii that poisoned thousands of people when it leaked jet fuel into Pearl Harbor’s drinking water in 2021.

The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility has supplied fuel to military ships and planes navigating the Pacific Ocean since the Second World War, but the leak prompted an outcry in the island state to shut the tanks down – despite their importance to national security.

The tanks sit above an aquifer supplying water to 400,000 people, and around 6,000 became ill from the discharge.

Joint Task Force Red Hill has overseen repairing and draining around 104 million litres of fuel from the tanks since October.

FILE - In this file photo provided by the U.S. Navy, Rear Adm. John Korka, Commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command (NAVFAC), and Chief of Civil Engineers, leads Navy and civilian water quality recovery experts through the tunnels of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, near Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 23, 2021. The U.S. military said it's finished draining million of gallons of fuel from the tank complex in Hawaii that poisoned 6,000 people when it leaked jet fuel into Pearl Harbor's drinking water in 2021.  (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Luke McCall/U.S. Navy via AP, File)
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Teams venture through the tunnels of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. Pic: AP

They are to be permanently deactivated by another team – the Navy Closure Task Force – which is also responsible for cleaning up the environment and restoring the aquifer.

Vice Admiral John Wade, the commander of the taskforce that drained the tanks, said its mission was to “safely and expeditiously close the facility to ensure clean water and to conduct the necessary long-term environmental remediation”.

Shortly after the spill, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply stopped pumping water from the aquifer to not contaminate the water system.

It is searching for alternative water sources but the Pearl Harbor aquifer was key as it provided about 20% of the water consumed in the city.

A previous investigation into the disaster said a series of errors caused the leak as hundreds of people suffered from nausea, headaches and rashes afterwards.

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In this photo provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, this 1942 Navy photo shows miners building one of the 20 fuel tanks of Defense Logistics Agency's Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility at Joint Base Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, which are connected by a miles-long tunnel. A Navy investigation released Thursday, June 30, 2022 revealed that shoddy management and human error caused fuel to leak into Pearl Harbor's tap water last year, poisoning thousands of people and forcing military families to evacuate their homes for hotels. The investigation is the first detailed account of how jet fuel from the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, a massive World War II-era military-fun tank farm in the hills above Pearl Harbor, leaked into a well that supplied water to housing and offices in and around Pearl Harbor. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via AP)
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Miners building one of the 20 fuel tanks in 1942. Pic: US Army Corps of Engineers/AP

The Navy reprimanded three now-retired military officers for their roles in the spill but no one was fired or suspended.

In the first six weeks of the leak, the Navy spent more than $250m (£198m) to address the emergency.

The military built the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in the early 1940s by excavating caverns within the mountain ridge to protect 20 fuel tanks from aerial attacks.

Each tank is about the height of a 25-storey building and can hold 47 million litres of fuel.

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