As the military prepares to begin draining the Navy’s underground Red Hill fuel storage facility next month, the University of Hawaii at Manoa has launched the Red Hill Information Hub, which it describes as a “one stop shop of the latest information, data and tools that can also be used for education, communication and research.”
In a Sunday news release, the university said the hub is led by the UH Red Hill Task Force, which operates out of the UH Manoa Water Resources Research Center. According to the release, UH’s National Disaster Preparedness Training Center supported the research center with the creation of the hub, and UH faculty, staff and students across the Manoa campus and Leeward Community College, independent scientists and community members have also contributed.
The Red Hill facility’s massive storage tanks, which currently hold 104 million gallons of fuel, sit just 100 feet above a critical aquifer most of Oahu depends on for drinking water. For years the Honolulu Board of Water Supply and others warned that it posed a threat to the island’s water supply. In November 2021, fuel from the facility tainted the Navy’s Oahu water system that serves 93, 000 people, including military families and local civilians in former military housing areas, making many sick.
“This knowledge product directly addresses the expressed data needs of community members, builds on and complements existing data gathering efforts led by state and federal agencies, and is a safe space for robust, accurate, and objective information, ” said WRRC Director Thomas Giambelluca in UH’s news release.
The hub includes the latest state Department of Health water monitoring reports ; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health surveys ; a newsfeed ; and information about upcoming public meetings and events. According to the UH release, the hub also includes “educational resources for teachers, students and researchers.”
In a video released by the university, Red Hill Information Hub lead developer Cuong Tran said, “We wanted to really help the public and provide them with general educational resources. Not only on Red Hill, but centered on water contamination and water security in the face of climate change for Hawaii.”
Mia Comeros, WRRC Red Hill research project coordinator, said in the video that “UH is in a prime position with expertise and with support and with networks already existing to provide a safe place for good and robust information to the community.”
The Navy for years insisted that the World War II-era Red Hill facility was critical for supporting the operations of its vast Pacific Fleet and that it was perfectly safe and maintained. But a spill of 27, 000 gallons of jet fuel in January 2014 from a tank that was just put back on line after repairs were completed the previous month raised doubts, even as the Navy insisted the spill had been contained.
In 2015, the Navy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the DOH signed an administrative order of consent to address the cleanup of the leak and which also required the Navy to have the “best available technology ” to prevent leaks by 2045 or remove the fuel and shut down the facility.
The Navy turned to UH to assess the tanks and look for ways to potentially upgrade them, funding research undertaken by the university’s College of Engineering, School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology and the Applied Research Laboratory.
In a post on UH’s website dated 2020, UH College of Engineering Dean Brennon Morioka was quoted saying “as scientists, we want the science and facts to speak for themselves. Because there is so much emotion surrounding the future of the Red Hill facility, the role of UH as an independent arbiter will hopefully go a long way in ultimately validating the results to bring greater objectivity among all parties involved.”
But in March 2022, after months of resisting a state emergency order tied to the 2021 spill calling on the Navy to drain the Red Hill tanks, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced that the military would drain and permanently close the Red Hill facility. The military has since acknowledged that the facility had fallen into deep disrepair and would require extensive repairs and upgrades to safely remove the fuel inside.
The military formed Joint Task Force Red Hill under Vice Adm. John Wade to make those repairs and ultimately defuel the tanks. JTF Red Hill says the repairs are completed and it is on schedule to begin defueling on Oct. 15, with most of the fuel expected to be removed by the end of January, but the Navy’s remediation and ultimate shutdown of the facility is expected to take years.
The Red Hill Information Hub can be found here.
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