Defueling Begins At Red Hill Fuel Depot, Will Continue into January

October 16, 2023 6:47 PM
Merchant tanker Empire State, the first ship scheduled to defuel the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, arrives at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Oct. 11, 2023. US Air Force Photo

This story has been updated to correct the amount of time it will take to fill each tanker and correct where dewatering occured, as well as to add new information from the Joint Task Force – Red Hill public affairs office. 

Joint Task Force – Red Hill began defueling the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility on Monday, one of the last steps before the property will be turned over to the Navy for closure.

Defueling will start by using gravity to clear the approximate 104 million gallons of fuel from the tanks. Once that is complete, the joint task force will then have to remove residual fuel, about 60-70,000 gallons, Vice Adm. John Wade, commander of the joint task force, told reporters Friday. The gravity phase is considered more passive defueling, while removing the residual fuel will be more active.

Once all fuel is removed from the facility, the Navy, which owns the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, will take over and begin the closure process. That will include removing sludge that remains in the tanks and the smaller amounts of residual fuel that cannot be removed without destructing the pipeline, Wade said.

While the Navy owns Red Hill, the joint task force is currently leading the defueling process. Once defueling finishes, the Navy will take over as the operations lead for the closure process.

According to the Navy’s initial plan for Red Hill’s closure, the facility won’t be officially closed until January 2027. Currently, one of the options the Navy is considering is a closure in place, in which the tanks are re-used for something other than fuel.

During the current gravity phase of defueling the fuel will descend down the lines of the tanks, which are 250 feet tall by 100 feet wide, according to a video put out by the Joint Task Force – Red Hill on the defueling process.

The tanks use gravity to funnel fuel into pipelines, which will then travel through 3 miles of tunnels to reach a cargo pier. It will then be loaded onto merchant ships that will take the fuel to other Department of Defense storage facilities. Once the fuel reaches the 10 feet from the bottom of the tank, fuel from the flowable tank bottom will be removed through a smaller pipeline at the bottom of the fuel tank.

One of the fuel tankers, Empire State, arrived on Oct. 11, according to a news release from the Joint Task Force. It will take 52 hours to load each tanker, according to the video, but the last tank will take longer, a joint task force spokesperson told USNI News. Gravity defueling is expected to finish in mid-January.

Since the decision to close Red Hill following leaks in May and November 2021, the Joint Task Force has taken a number of steps to defuel the facility.

Approximately 1.6 million gallons of maritime and jet fuel were removed from the pipelines in November. Pipelines also had to be repacked to prepare for defueling, while the tanks had to be dewatered. Surge tanks also had to be emptied. Joint Task Force – Red Hill made a number of repairs, which the Hawaii Department of Health conditionally approved. The department gave its go ahead for the defueling process.

“For many people in our community, this milestone is more of a source of relief than a cause for celebration,” Kathy Ho, director of evironmental health for the Hawaii Department of Health told reporters Friday.

Defueling Red Hill was one of the three conditions that the Department of Health demanded following the November leak, which led to fuel seeping into drinking water. The department has also demanded the closure of Red Hill and the remediation of the aquifer to ensure clean, safe drinking water.

Defueling was initially scheduled to end in July 2024. Although a start date had not been announced, the Department of Defense accelerated the timeline by about six months, USNI News previously reported.

Heather Mongilio

Heather Mongilio

Heather Mongilio is a reporter with USNI News. She has a master’s degree in science journalism and has covered local courts, crime, health, military affairs and the Naval Academy.
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