Military Families Affected by Hawaii Jet Fuel Spill Could Wait Weeks for Clean Water

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 12 p.m. on Jan. 13 with the Navy’s official estimates of the number of families and number of Air Force families affected by the spill.

More than 9,000 households in Hawaii have been affected by a jet fuel spill near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam that contaminated drinking water in November. The Navy anticipates the issue at the Red Hill Fuel Bulk Fuel Storage Facility won’t be resolved for some families until mid-February, officials said during a Congressional hearing Jan. 11.

At the same time, top Pentagon leaders will have to contend with possible long-term effects from the spill. Hawaii’s Department of Health has ordered that all the fuel from the facility—some 180 million gallons—be drained and stored elsewhere until the Navy meets state safety standards. Such a move, however, would pose long-term logistical challenges for the Defense Department in the Indo-Pacific region, just as DOD has pivoted to focus on competition with China, particularly in that part of the world.

The spill at Red Hill on the island of Oahu occurred Nov. 20, and early indications are that it was caused by “operator error,” Rear Adm. Blake Converse, deputy commander of the Pacific Fleet, told the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee.

By Nov. 28, residents of military housing started to complain that their drinking water, which comes from a well located just 100 feet under the fuel storage facility, smelled like gas, with some reports of illness after drinking it, according to Hawaii Public Radio.

Tests determined that water from the Red Hill facility “contained total petroleum hydrocarbons associated with diesel fuel that were 350 times above levels that the state considers safe,” according to the Honolulu Star Advertiser. As a result, military families and civilians have either had to relocate or rely on limited access to clean water, according to local media reports.

In his opening statement before the Congressional panel, Converse acknowledged that the Navy “caused this problem. We own it, and we’re going to fix it.”

Navy: ‘Working Diligently’

That fix will take time, though. Rep. Kaiali’i Kahele (D-Hawaii) noted that some residents were initially told they would be able to move back into their homes by Christmas, only for that timeline to be pushed back. Vice Adm. Yancy B. Lindsey, head of Navy Installations Command, told Kahele the service now anticipates some families could be waiting for weeks to come. 

“We want to make sure that the homes have drinkable water, and so we’re working diligently with our partners at the Hawaii Department of Health and the EPA and our fellow services to, once we attain that drinkable water and it is safe to use, that those families that have chosen to displace will be able to return to their homes,” Lindsey said. “We expect that to begin occurring here in late January and proceed through the middle of February.”

Lindsey also told lawmakers that the number of households affected by the spill is currently estimated at “9,000-plus.”

In response to a query from Air Force Magazine, a Navy spokeswoman said there are approximately 8,086 families on the Navy’s water supply system. As of Jan. 10, 3,965 of those families, just shy of half, are in temporary housing. Of those 8,086 or so families, 1,968 are Air Force families, with 469 in temporary housing.

No families were required to leave their homes, the spokeswoman added, and can move back in whenever they wish, but the Hawaii DOH health advisory is still active.

Yet even as the Navy works to address the fallout from the spill, long-term implications loom. Converse said he has seen early estimates that operational readiness in the short term will be minimally affected by the halting of operations at Red Hill, defining the short term as January and February.

“Beyond that, we do start incurring costs at the Defense Logistics Agency associated with the inability to use that facility to manage the global distribution of fuel in conjunction with all the other fuel points,” Converse said. “I don’t have details at my fingertips on what those costs are and what are the risks to National Security associated with the continued non-operation on the Red Hill fuel facility beyond January and February.”

The Defense Logistics Agency is currently assessing that impact, Converse said, and will brief U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief Adm. John Aquilino.

At the same time, the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act included a provision from Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) directing the Pentagon to conduct an assessment of alternatives to Red Hill, as local advocates and politicians push for the facility to be permanently shut down.

Converse declined to say what other locations are being considered as part of that study but did say that “INDOPACOM, whose combatant commander is responsible for this area of operation, has directed the Defense Logistics Agency, who owns fuel distribution across the globe, to evaluate alternatives for dispersing this fuel and alternative sites for storing or alternative methods for storage, whether it be in a fixed site or within tankers that are globally distributed.”

Appeal Denied

The question of dispersing and storing fuel could be of critical importance in the coming months. The Navy initially tried to contest the state order directing it to drain the Red Hill fuel tanks, pointing to the implications for national security. Its appeal was denied, however, and Converse said Jan. 11 that the service would comply with the order. 

Under the order, the Navy has until Feb. 2 to submit a plan and implementation schedule for defueling. Once that plan is approved by the Department of Health, defueling must be completed within 30 days. 

Such a timeline is “aggressive” and “ambitious,” Converse and Case acknowledged. Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), on the other hand, seemed dubious that it was even possible.

“To me, it looks like it would be at least six months before you get to the point where you could have these recommendations, another six months before you might start emptying the fuel tanks, [and] then the amount of time it takes for that 250 or so million gallons of fuel, that we could be looking at a year, much more than a year even potentially, that the operations of Red Hill are impacted,” Luria said.

Case pushed back on Luria’s concerns, saying he was confident that the Navy would do its best to meet the deadlines.

Ultimately, the long-term fate of Red Hill remains unclear. Local activists have pointed to previous instances of spills at the facility as proof that it is not safe. And, indeed, Converse confirmed Jan. 11 that the Navy is investigating whether there is any connection between this most recent spill and one that occurred in May 2021, which was ultimately attributed to operator error.

“This is a strategic fuel facility for the entire military, not just the Navy. So we need to understand and not treat these as individual isolated incidents and take minor corrective actions, but treat these as potential systemic issues, get to the root causes, and fix those problems,” Converse said.

To that end, Case told the panel of Navy officials testifying that their study of the issue shouldn’t end by chalking it up to the mistakes of individual operators.

“I have said this to the Secretary of the Navy. I’ve said this to other folks during the course of this discussion: There may well have been errors by operators out at Red Hill, but to confine the explanation simply to operator error is to ignore what is clearly issues with respect to the operation and maintenance and perhaps even the direct design of Red Hill,” Case said.