World

US military drains giant wartime fuel tanks which had poisoned water supply

Almost 400 million litres of fuel had to be pumped from the leaking Second World War era tanks in Hawaii.

Soldiers and experts check the situation in the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, near Pearl Harbour (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Luke McCall/U.S. Navy via AP, File)
Soldiers and experts check the situation in the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, near Pearl Harbour (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Luke McCall/U.S. Navy via AP, File) (Luke McCall/AP)

The US military said it has finished draining million of gallons of fuel from an underground fuel tank complex in Hawaii that poisoned 6,000 people when it leaked jet fuel into Pearl Harbour’s drinking water in 2021.

Joint Task Force Red Hill began defueling the tanks in October after completing months of repairs to an aging network of pipes to prevent the Second World War era facility from springing more leaks while it drained 393.6 million litres of fuel from the tanks.

The task force was scheduled to hand over responsibility for the tanks on Thursday to Navy Closure Task Force-Red Hill.

This new command, led by Rear Admiral Stephen D Barnett, is charged with permanently decommissioning the tanks, cleaning up the environment and restoring the aquifer underneath.

Vice Admiral John Wade, the commander of the task force that drained the tanks, said in a recorded video released on Wednesday that Barnett understands “the enormity and importance” of the job.

Admiral Wade said the new task force’s mission was to “safely and expeditiously close the facility to ensure clean water and to conduct the necessary long-term environmental remediation”.

The military agreed to drain the tanks after the 2021 spill sparked an outcry in Hawaii and concerns about the threat the tanks posed to Honolulu’s water supply.

The tanks sit above an aquifer supplying water to 400,000 people in urban Honolulu, including Waikiki and downtown.

The military built the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in the side of a mountain ridge to shield the fuel tanks from aerial attack.

Each of the 20 tanks is equivalent in height to a 25-storey building and can hold 47.3 million litres.

A Navy investigation said a series of errors caused thousands of gallons of fuel to seep into the Navy’s water system serving 93,000 people on and around the Pearl Harbour naval base in 2021.

Water users reported nausea, vomiting and skin rashes.

The Navy reprimanded three now-retired military officers for their roles in the spill but did not fire or suspend anybody.