On Monday, the U.S. military began draining jet fuel from 20 World War II-era storage tanks in Hawaiʻi, in a victory for Native Hawaiian activists and environmentalists who have, for years, warned of the risks the tanks pose to a critical source of drinking water on Oʻahu, the state’s most populated island. 

The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility consists of 20 underground tanks, about 250 feet tall and 100 feet in diameter, filled with more than 100 million gallons of petroleum, along with a system of pipelines and tunnels. It will take three months to drain the tanks, a process that involves releasing the fuel down three miles of pipelines to a pier at Pearl Harbor where it will be loaded onto tankers. From there, some will be stored onsite or transferred to West Oʻahu. More fuel will be shipped to San Diego, the Philippines, and Singapore. 

Officials say some fuel and sludge will remain after the draining is complete and will require a much longer cleanup. 

Constructed more than 80 years ago, the Red Hill facility has long been the source of multiple fuel spills, but it wasn’t until recently that calls to shut down the facility gained traction: In November 2021, about 93,000 people were exposed to jet fuel-laced water.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.

The problem began the weekend after Thanksgiving, when families in military housing noticed that their water smelled like gasoline. Some started to get headaches or feel nauseous, or noticed that their dogs refused to drink the water. When families raised concerns, Navy leadership initially said the water was safe to drink. Even after the state Health Department warned residents not to use the tap water, it took three more days for the Navy to confirm the petroleum contamination

In the weeks after, the Navy continued to downplay the threat, contending that the jet fuel-laced water was “not a crisis.” A federal report later revealed that nearly 17,000 gallons of fuel leaked from the facility and at least 3,300 gallons contaminated the Navy’s drinking water system on Oʻahu.

A federal survey later found that about 2,000 people got sick, with more than a dozen hospitalized. Hundreds of children remained sick up to a month after with some reporting seizures. Some pets died. Last month, five Navy admirals received official rebukes for their mishandling of the crisis. 

The extent of the spill and the Navy’s bungled management of the situation gave ammunition to previously unheard calls from Indigenous and environmental activists to empty the tanks. Advocates contended that Red Hill threatened a critical aquifer, and they were joined by the Honolulu Board of Water Supply citing the potential for leaked fuel to contaminate the municipal supply. In December, the state’s Health Department joined the fight, and in March 2022, the Navy agreed to shut the facility down.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“We got here not because the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense woke up one day and said, ‘Oh, we’re going to do the right thing,'” said Healani Sonoda-Pale, one of the organizers of Oʻahu Water Protectors, a grassroots organization. “We got here because of the collective voices of the people who were calling for the shutdown of Red Hill and the protection of our aquifer here on Oʻahu.”

But while the defueling process is being seen as a victory, it’s not without its own risks. According to the Department of Defense’s environmental assessment, there’s still a chance for leaks or spills as the fuel makes its way through underground pipelines and is shipped to other locations. The agency says it’s worked to reduce that risk through repairs and training. 

“We listened to the community and have taken significant precautions to mitigate risk and protect the aquifer and the environment as we safely and expeditiously defuel the facility,”  Vice Adm. John Wade, JTF-Red Hill Commander, said in a press release Monday. 

Wayne Tanaka, who leads the local Sierra Club, is still worried. He says even a small amount of jet fuel leaking into the environment could be disastrous.

“We’ve been told repeatedly by the military that there’s nothing to worry about, that they have everything under control, that they thought of everything, and time and time again, unfortunately, events have proven them wrong,” Tanaka said. “Many of us are holding our breath, clenching our butts, and praying that for once, the [Department of Defense] will be able to execute.” 

In preparation for the worst-case scenario, the Sierra Club has created a toolkit that urges local families to store clean drinking water and buy water-quality testing kits. 

Healani Sonoda-Pale, who is also the chair of the Red Hill Community Representation Initiative, a group of elected community members who have input on the defueling process, has pushed the military to set up a hotline so that people can more quickly alert authorities if the fuel transfer results in more water pollution. An Environmental Protection Agency consent order requires that the Department of Defense notify the organization within 24 hours of a threat to health and safety. But the community group also wants a commitment from the agency to notify them if anything doesn’t go according to plan, given that health risks may not be obvious right away.

Ultimately, Sonoda-Pale hopes that the land where the storage facility sits can be returned to Hawaiians.

“All of the bases sit on stolen Hawaiian Kingdom, Crown, and government land,” Sonoda-Pale said. “When the overthrow happened in 1893, it was the U.S. military that landed troops to support a small group of American and European businessmen overthrowing a constitutional monarchy and literally stealing millions of acres of prime Hawaiian lands so that they can use that for their own self interests.”

She says it was only after the Navy poisoned their own people that politicians recognized how dangerous the underground storage tanks were and took action.

“If Hawaiians were in control of their own land and resources, this would have never happened.”