After repeated demands for its closure, the United States department of defense announced that it will shut down the Red Hill fuel facility in Hawai’i on Monday, March 7. The news comes after months of widespread outrage and protests over fuel leaks in drinking water supply in O’ahu, Hawai’i ‘s most populated island and home to its capital Honolulu.
The defense department has ordered the Navy to table plans until the end of May for the defuelling and decommissioning of the facility within 12 months. It has also said that the Honolulu community will have a say in deciding the future of Red Hill.
A statement released by the O’ahu Water Protectors (OWP), a coalition fighting for the closure of the tank farm, celebrated the announcement as the “culmination of months of organizing, education and the application of political pressure.”
“This victory belongs to the people who hit the streets, online, and the halls of power to demand the shut down of Red Hill,” the statement read. “It’s also just the beginning of a new stage in a long struggle towards full accountability and remediation.”
The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, a Second World War-era facility, is located just 100 feet above aquifers that supply drinking water to more than three-quarters of O’ahu. The US Navy had announced on November 21 last year that over 14,000 gallons (close to 53,000 liters) of fuel had spilled at Red Hill.
The resulting leak into the drinking water supply was only confirmed on December 2 after multiple hospitalizations were reported by families in the military’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, along with local residents.
An estimated 6,000 people fell sick due to contamination of the water supply. According to OWP, an estimated 9,000 families were displaced including over 1,000 military families. At least 4,000 of these families are yet to return home.
The November fuel leak came just months after another massive leak of 19,000 gallons (close to 72,000 liters) of fuel had taken place in May. According to the environmentalist movement Sierra Club, since the beginning of the facility’s operations in 1942, there have been at least 73 leaks, totaling up to 180,000 gallons (over 680,000 liters) of fuel.
A major leak in 2014 – when over 27,000 gallons (more than 100,000 liters) of fuel leaked – brought national attention to poor maintenance and quality control at the storage facility. Islanders organizing for the closure of the facility however faced the military’s indifference.
Groups like OWP, Sierra Club, Hawai’i Peace and Justice, Ka’ohewai and Ka Lāhui Hawaii Political Action Committee have been organizing for years against the tanks. The November leak also incensed the local authorities who had remained largely silent on the matter.
On December 6, Hawai’i’s health department ordered the Navy to immediately suspend its operations at the tank farm. The massive leak led to further intensification of the native communities’ years-long struggle against Red Hill.
Movements still insist that there is a long way to go. “Despite today’s good news, OWP members remain vigilant and will continue our work to advocate for a definitive end to the water crisis which has displaced 9,000 families and contaminated the water of 93,000 Oʻahu homes,” the OWP statement added.
The group has placed a series of demands, including the full remediation of the aquifer and contaminated sites, creation of a Community Oversight Board to evaluate the cleanup process, restitution to affected families, and that the fueling facility not be relocated anywhere else within or outside Hawai’i.
The military has said that it is going to move to a fueling system in the Indo-Pacific, seeking contracts with other countries, while the defense department proposed a decentralized fueling arrangement for US military bases.