Top Stories 2023: Red Hill Defueling

December 19, 2023 10:59 AM
Personnel in support of Joint Task Force-Red Hill (JTF-RH) disconnect fuel lines from merchant tanker Yosemite Trader, completing the process of gravity draining the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility (RHBFSF) flowable tank bottoms, at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii Dec. 7, 2023. US Army Photo

Joint Task Force – Red Hill, the group responsible for defueling the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, spent 2023 preparing and completing gravity defueling of the tanks that held jet and maritime fuel from a series of underground tanks in Hawaii.

The task force announced Friday that it finished gravity defueling, the process by which it used gravity to drain fuel from the tanks, putting its total defueling timeline six months ahead of schedule. The next steps are scheduled to begin in January.

Gravity defueling began on Oct. 16. In almost two months, the joint task force was able to remove 104,642,160 gallons of fuel, according to a press release from the task force.

Gravity defueling included three processes. Initially, the joint task force estimated the defueling would take three months.

First, the 14 tanks were drained using gravity to send fuel down pipelines, which traveled through three miles of tunnels to tankers at a pier at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The tanks were expected to be drained to the 10-foot point.

However, when doing gravity defueling, the joint task force was able to drain the tanks to the 7-foot point, which allowed the joint task force to drain an additional million gallons, USNI News previously reported. This section of gravity defueling finished on Nov. 17.

The extra fuel drained, as well as the use of extra efficiencies used during gravity defueling, meant that Joint Task Force Read Hill finished a month earlier than expected.

The task force then began flowable tank bottom defueling, where smaller pipes were used to drain the remaining fuel left in the tanks past the 7-foot point. Joint Task Force – Red Hill finished on Dec. 7.

That last process in what the task force grouped under gravity defueling was unpacking the pipelines. That ended Dec. 15, the joint task force said in a release.

Now, the joint task force will turn to removing residual fuel that could not be drained, a process that is expected to begin in mid-January, pending approval, the joint task force said in a release.

The joint task force estimates that 60,000 gallons of residual fuel will be removed.

The Department of Defense has not said where the fuel removed from Red Hill will be stored, except that it will be kept at other DoD facilities, citing operational security as to why it cannot share more details.

Red Hill’s closure is not expected to affect operational readiness, according to a joint task force release.

Transition to the Department of the Navy

While Joint Task Force – Red Hill starts removing residual fuel, it will begin the early steps of transitioning Red Hill responsibilities to the Navy.

The joint task force’s charge was to defuel the facility, while the Navy will be tasked with closing down the facility. Right now, the current closure plan is a closure in place, meaning the Navy will leave the tanks in the ground with an option to reuse them for non-fuel storage in the future, USNI News previously reported.

The Navy Closure Task Force will be headed by Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett, who will be dual-hatted as both the task force lead as well as Navy Region Hawaii commander.

While Joint Task Force – Red Hill removes residual fuel, Navy Closure Task Force will start the initial operational capacity period simultaneously, according to an amendment to the Red Hill defueling plan.

Joint Task Force – Red Hill will remain the lead during this period, while Navy Closure Task Force Red Hill acting in a support role.

“We are prepared for a seamless transition from JTF-RH to NCTF-RH,” Barnett said in a Joint Task Force – Red Hill release. “Navy has served proudly as part of the JTF, and we will build upon its good work and bring with us the knowledge and processes developed, to ensure the same discipline and transparency as we do the work of closing Red Hill.”

Once the joint task force removes the residual fuel, 99.9 percent of the fuel should be removed from the tanks and pipes. However, there will still be some remaining fuel that will require a more active process for removal.

The Navy Closure Task Force will be responsible for the removal. That will move the closure task force to the lead for Red Hill, with the joint task force performing final headquarters standdown actions, according to the amendment.

Under the amendment, residual fuel removal and the transition period was supposed to start on Jan. 19. According to a Dec. 15 press release, residual fuel removal will start mid-January pending approval.

While gravity defueling ending in December instead of January, it is unclear how the rest of the timeline will be affected.

Officers censured for Red Hill leaks

In July, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro issued three letters of censure and U.S. Fleet Forces commander Adm. Daryll Caudle issued two letters of instruction to flag officers who were responsible for Red Hill during the 2021 leaks that led to the decision to shut down the facility. Del Toro also issued seven non-punitive censure letters to seven Navy captains.

The following retired officers received letters of censure:

  • Rear Adm. Peter Stamatopoulos, commander of Naval Supply Systems Command during the May and November 2021 spills
  •  Rear Adm. John Korka, commander of Navy Facilities Engineering Command, Pacific, before the spills
  • Rear Adm. Timothy Kott, commander of Navy Region Hawaii during the November 2021 spill

The letters will go into the retired rear admirals’ files.

The two flag officers to receive letters of instructions were:

  • Rear Adm. Dean VanderLey, commander of NAVFAC Pacific during the November 2021 spill
  • retired Rear Adm. Robert Chadwick, commander of Navy Region Hawaii during the May 2021 spill
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.
Follow @hmongilio

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