Coming up to the end of 2021, there's been a lot of news and information about water contamination from a leak at the Navy's Red Hill fuel storage facility on Oʻahu. While cleanup efforts continue, the history and issues surrounding Red Hill began long before. These are the recent developments.
The Red Hill facility, which was constructed in the early 1940s, consists of 20 tanks mined inside a volcanic ridge near Pearl Harbor. Each tank measures 100 feet in diameter and 250 feet high — the height of a 20-story building, or Aloha Tower.
They can hold up to 250 million gallons of fuel, or 12.5 million gallons each. Fuel travels 2.5 miles via pipelines to ships and planes waiting at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
Hundreds of thousands of Oʻahu residents — civilian and military — rely on drinking water from an aquifer that sits 100 feet below the fuel storage facility. The Navy's water system serves some 93,000 residents.
The state has ordered the U.S. Navy to halt operations at the Red Hill facility after a petroleum leak on Nov. 20 contaminated the military drinking water supply.
Navy officials believe a one-time spill of jet fuel inside an access tunnel contaminated one of its wells and the tap water. They said the fuel tanks themselves did not taint the water. Still, state officials and environmental activists are calling for the facility to be shut down.
The Navy has said the facility is vital to maritime security and regional stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
This timeline will be updated as new information becomes available. Find more of HPR's coverage on the Red Hill fuel storage facility here.
Dec. 21, 2021: After a nearly 13-hour hearing, local officials, military representatives, and intervenors presented their closing arguments on whether or not the Navy must defuel Red Hill. A hearings officer is expected to issue a recommendation soon.
Dec. 20, 2021: The Hawaiʻi Department of Health begins the contested case hearing for the emergency order issued to the Navy about removing fuel from the tanks and halting operations.
The Navy begins filtering and flushing its water system.
The Department of Defense Office of Inspector General says it will investigate "to determine the extent that Navy officials managed the operation, maintenance, safety, and oversight of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, and protected the environment and drinking water systems."
Dec. 17, 2021: The U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Health announce the creation of an interagency partnership to ensure clean drinking water.
Dec. 16, 2021: Hawaiʻi’s congressional delegation asks House and Senate leaders to make sure the military spends whatever money it has available to address the contamination.
Dec. 15, 2021: The Honolulu City Council approves the first reading of a bill that would give the city oversight of large underground storage tanks such as those at the Red Hill facility. The council also passes a resolution calling for the permanent closure, defueling, and removal of the tanks.
Dec. 14, 2021: The Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi says it wants to intervene in proceedings for the state’s emergency order against the Navy.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks tours the facility and meets with local officials.
Dec. 13, 2021: Navy divers begin trying to remove jet fuel from the Red Hill water shaft near Pearl Harbor.
Dec. 10, 2021: Water from the Navy’s Red Hill shaft contains high levels of gasoline and diesel fuel hydrocarbons, the Hawaiʻi Department of Health confirms. Hydrocarbons associated with diesel fuel were detected at 350 times the level the health department considers safe.
Dec. 8, 2021: Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro says he has directed the pause of all operations at the Red Hill storage tanks until the investigation into the source of the petroleum leak is completed — but he did not mention defueling the tank, as the emergency order directed.
The Department of Health reports diesel fuel levels more than double the limit for drinking water in the Navy’s ʻAiea-Halawa Shaft. The Navy says, "The sample was not from the Halawa well but from an off-service section of the water distribution system." As a precaution, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply shuts down its ʻAiea Well and Halawa Well.
Dec. 7, 2021: The Navy contests the health department's order to further suspend the use of fuel tanks and drain them.
Dec. 6, 2021: The Navy says it has suspended the use of the facility.
Gov. David Ige and the Department of Health order the Navy to further suspend operations until independent evaluators can ensure that appropriate actions are taken to protect drinking water. They also order the Navy to treat contaminated drinking water and plan to remove the fuel.
Dec. 5, 2021: Gov. David Ige and Hawaiʻi’s congressional delegation say that operations at the Red Hill fuel site should be suspended immediately.
Rear Adm. Blake Converse says at a Sunday town hall meeting that a recent spill was likely the source of the contamination found in the well.
Dec. 3, 2021: The Honolulu Board of Water Supply shuts down its Halawa Shaft as a precaution. A report released Dec. 13 by the BWS finds no contaminants in its Halawa Shaft.
The Hawaiʻi congressional delegation urges Gov. David Ige to request an emergency declaration from President Joe Biden.
The U.S. Navy authorizes evacuation and/or lodging allowances for residents in affected areas.
Dec. 2, 2021: The Navy says tests identified petroleum in its Red Hill well. Rear Adm. Blake Converse, Pacific Fleet deputy commander, told a town hall meeting the Navy took this well offline on Nov. 28 because it was the closest well to affected housing areas. The source of contamination is not yet announced.
The U.S. Army authorizes evacuation and/or lodging allowances for residents in affected areas.
Dec. 1, 2021: Preliminary testing shows the presence of petroleum product in a water sample from Red Hill Elementary which is on the Navy water system, Hawaiʻi health officials say.
Nov. 30, 2021: The Navy recommends Joint Base Pearl Harbor – Hickam military housing residents avoid ingestion of their potable water as a cautionary measure "if chemical or petroleum odors are present."
Nov. 29, 2021: The U.S. Navy says it is investigating reports of a "chemical smell" in drinking water at some military homes. The state Department of Health recommends "all Navy water system users avoid using the water for drinking, cooking, or oral hygiene."
The Navy opens fire hydrants and illegally flushes contaminated water directly onto sidewalks and residential streets, Honolulu Civil Beat reports.
Admiral Samuel Paparo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, orders an investigation into the Nov. 20 incident and reopens the investigation into the May 6 incident.
Around Nov. 28, 2021: Military residents begin complaining about gas or fuel odor from their drinking water. Some say they've been getting sick. The Navy says there is no "immediate indication" that the water is unsafe.
The Navy takes its Red Hill water well offline but does not disclose that information until about Dec. 2.
Nov. 27, 2021: The Navy halts use of the Red Hill storage tank facility but does not disclose that information until Dec. 6.
Nov. 24, 2021: Local environmental groups call for the federal government to close down the facility, saying they’ve had enough of the problems surrounding the storage tanks.
Nov. 20 - 21, 2021: The Navy reports 14,000 gallons of a fuel and water mix leaked from a fire suppression drain line. The Navy said there were no signs the fuel had escaped into the environment and the drinking water was safe.
Oct. 27, 2021: The state Department of Health fines the U.S. Navy more than $325,000 for operations and maintenance violations at Red Hill.
Oct. 26, 2021: The Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi files a public records complaint with the state Department of Health after learning of an email trail it believes could change the outcome of a contested case hearing for the Navy’s permit to operate the Red Hill facility.
Oct. 8, 2021: Honolulu Civil Beat reports Navy officials knew the early 2020 Hotel Pier incident was due to an active fuel leak, "but officials waited months to report it to the department amid concerns it would hamper its ability to secure a state permit."
"It was the end of January, just days before the U.S. Navy was set to appear in a hearing before the Hawaii Department of Health that would determine the fate of its Red Hill underground fuel facility," Civil Beat reporter Christina Jedra wrote.
May 6-7, 2021: A pipeline releases 1,618 gallons of fuel due to operator error, the Navy says. Navy officials maintain the leak did not contaminate drinking water.
February 2021: The contested case hearing for the Navy's five-year permit takes place over several days.
Early 2020: An "oil sheen" is detected on surface water near Hotel Pier at Pearl Harbor. The military tells Hawaiʻi Public Radio about the fuel leak in June 2021 — something previously not disclosed. The Navy said about 7,700 gallons of fuel were collected from soil and water.
March-May 2019: The Navy submits to the health department an application, and revisions, for a five-year permit to operate Red Hill. In July 2019, the department says it is reviewing the case and has received requests for a contested case hearing, along with 156 public comments. The Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which have continuously called for more oversight and/or closure, contested the permit.
May 2015: The Environmental Protection Agency and Hawaiʻi Department of Health negotiate with military officials to have more oversight on tank corrosion, release detection, inspections and maintenance.
Jan. 13, 2014: About 27,000 gallons of jet fuel leak from a tank at the Red Hill storage facility.
The Navy drained the tank and collected samples from existing monitoring wells. Results in and around the tank indicated a spike in levels of hydrocarbons in soil vapor and groundwater.
"I think what this really provides us an opportunity to do today is to respond to this particular spill, to get a good handle on what's happened in the past, and make sure nothing like this happens again," then-Deputy Health Director Gary Gill said.
The leak brought broader attention to the aging Red Hill facility and highlighted the threat to Oʻahu’s groundwater. Hundreds of thousands of Oʻahu residents rely on a water aquifer 100 feet below the fuel storage facility for fresh drinking water. Gill said Red Hill has a history of contamination, some of which has worked its way down to the water table.
1940 - 1943: The Red Hill fuel storage facility is built during World War II.
Fuel used for the Pacific Theater during World War II was stored in above-ground tanks near Pearl Harbor. In 1940, the military decided to build a new underground facility, safe from aerial attack. When Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Red Hill construction was already underway and none of the above-ground tanks were destroyed.