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The Red Hill water crisis is stretching the Navy’s overstretched resources, experts say.
Public pressure to remove jet fuel from more than a dozen Navy underground storage tanks on Oahu comes as the U.S. military feels increasing pressure from China to strengthen its presence in the Pacific region.
On Tuesday, the Navy wrapped up its closing argument against a state order to remove about 180 million gallons of jet fuel from the 20-tank facility. The Hawaii Department of Health issued the order after the Navy confirmed petroleum contamination in its drinking water system that serves 93,000 Oahu residents earlier this month.
The health department, Honolulu Board of Water Supply and Sierra Club point to data that shows it’s only a matter of time before there’s another leak, and argue that could threaten more drinking water. The Navy suspended operations of the jet fuel facility but the fuel still sits in 18 of the 20 massive, 78-year-old corroding tanks just 100 feet above a drinking water aquifer.
The Navy said it would be open to removing the fuel if its own investigation deems it necessary but not in response to the state order.
“The stakes are high,” Craig Jensen, the Navy’s attorney said Tuesday. He recalled how James Balocki, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy, on Monday described the facility as a critical national security asset.
During his testimony under oath, Balocki noted the facility is cyber-protected and said it “provides a large preponderance of the war reserve fuel supply for the Indo-Pacific theater.”
Maintaining a war reserve appears increasingly important in the Pacific, says Alex Gray, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, noting that over the last year, China has increased its military and diplomatic activities in the region.
“We are now in a place where there’s bipartisan consensus in Washington — in a way that there really hasn’t been since the Cold War — that the greatest challenge facing U.S. national security is China’s rise,” he said.
He said the military forces in Hawaii play an important role in both deterring conflict and providing potential surge capacity were conflict to erupt.
Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center who specializes in Asia Pacific security issues, believes political and public pressure will force the Navy to remove the jet fuel from the Red Hill facility, in part because of how the current situation plays into the unhealed wounds of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the history of military contamination in Hawaii and local sentiment that the military exploits the islands.
But Roy thinks it’s unlikely the fuel itself will leave the island given Oahu’s role as a critical military staging area. The jet fuel would be needed not only for multiple ships and aircraft but many trips for each of them in the event of a conflict.
Roy describes the current situation with China as a “low-level but broad-based” tension that could escalate into conflict.
“It’s the kind of situation where you don’t want to have a serious vulnerability,” he said. Unfortunately for the U.S, the Navy is currently overstretched, Roy said, and has struggled to keep up with ship maintenance.
“The Chinese military has more ships than the U.S. Navy and is on pace to widen that lead,” Roy said. “The Navy already feels that it needs more hardware to feel comfortable.”
Gray noted that the U.S. military tries to prepare based on its adversaries’ capabilities rather than their intentions. When it comes to China, “the capabilities are ominous,” he said.
Roy said the water crisis at Red Hill is already forcing the Navy to pull resources away from its other priorities. Relocating the jet fuel entirely would be another stress.
Any alternative would be expensive and might force the Indo-Pacific Command to spend less on addressing another need. This would be less important if the geopolitical tensions with China were not as high, Roy said, likening the current situation to getting injured right before the playoffs.
When the Red Hill underground fuel facility was built in the 1940s, the underground storage facility was a “strategic innovation,” Roy said. For decades it was top secret, and the underground location protected it from an enemy attack.
The facility’s uphill location allows its pipelines to use gravity — rather than electricity — to deliver fuel to the military when needed. In a statement, a spokesman for the Indo-Pacific Command said the facility is also capable of supplying fuel to the Hawaii Army and Air National Guard, Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, Honolulu Harbor and Hawaiian Electric, in a conflict.
Roy thinks the advantage of the Red Hill underground locale is less important today given modern technological advances.
“Nowadays great powers have munitions that can go underground and still destroy things under even solid rock,” he said.
Moving the tanks above ground would increase their risk of being targeted and destroyed, Roy said, but “on the other hand, clean drinking water is a pretty basic need.”
A Navy contractor analyzed several alternative locations for the fuel but estimated that it could cost billions of dollars to construct a similar facility elsewhere in Hawaii. Since the drinking water contamination was revealed in the past few weeks, the Department of Defense has been analyzing various alternatives, such as storing the jet fuel afloat on a ship or utilizing private contractors to store it.
Roy thinks it would be difficult to move the fuel out of Hawaii to another place like Guam or Okinawa in the Pacific.
“Those places would not necessarily be thrilled,” Roy said, noting that such a decision could inflame political concerns and make those sites more of a target during a conflict.
Gray said that Hawaii’s location close to the West Coast but far enough removed from the Asian continent provides more protection for the fuel than a place like Guam.
He said there’s also a perception that the fuel might be more protected in Hawaii because it’s a U.S. state, versus a territory or base, and that it would be “much more escalatory for a potential adversary to do something against a U.S. state.”
Then there’s the question of infrastructure, he said, noting that there’s lots of redundancy built into Hawaii’s infrastructure that would help the military in event of a conflict. Hawaii is home to multiple military bases including air fields and training ranges.
“You can’t compare the infrastructure on Guam or the infrastructure in Okinawa to the infrastructure in Hawaii,” he said.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Earthjustice attorney David Henkin emphasized that his client, the nonprofit environmental advocacy group the Sierra Club, isn’t asking to get rid of the fuel entirely but to ensure it’s not located in an underground tank system that leaks into a critical aquifer.
“The nation will not fall if we defuel the Red Hill tanks,” Henkin said.
Gray said it’s up to local and state leaders to balance military imperatives against community needs. From a purely strategic perspective, the spaciousness of the Pacific Ocean underscores the importance of having a ready supply of jet fuel.
“In any realistic scenario where the U.S. has to undertake operations in East Asia or the western Pacific, we’re going to have — whether it’s bombers, whether it’s fighters, whether it’s transport aircraft, whether it’s refueling aircraft — we’re going to need to have Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps aircraft that are able to operate in that theater,” Gray said.
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