Red Hill Fuel Leak: An Engineering Catastrophe
By Reilly McKnight
September 26, 2022
UPDATED 12:00 PM EST
[Photo Credit: Honolulu Civil Beat]
On May 6th, 2021 on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, an operator mishap caused a surge of pressure within the main pipeline of the U.S. Navy’s Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility. 20,000 gallons (76,000 liters) of gasoline leaked into the drain line, and later into a major aquifer, poisoning over 90,000 Hawai’i residents’ drinking water and resulting in an immense controversy, still brewing now a year later. This facility‒ a former engineering marvel, was plagued by its flaws, and ultimately ended in disaster.
During its construction in early World War II, the top-secret facility was considered “one of the most innovative and unique engineering projects in the world” (“Red Hill: UH…”). The project’s revolutionary scale included twenty massive underground tanks containing a total fuel capacity of 250 million gallons, enough to supply the entire U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet. The innovative features include vertical tanks, gravity-fed pipelines, and their embedded position inside the mountain, which resulted in its recognition as a National Historic Civil Landmark in 1995.
Unfortunately, significant design flaws revealed themselves when the storage tanks recently began to show signs of wear. Usually, fuel tanks can be efficiently scanned with a visual check for thinning steel (indicating the risk of leakage) but Red Hill’s unique embedded position in the hillside forces operators to use unwieldy hand-held ultrasonic sensors in their meticulous search for damages. Additionally, the facility’s pipeline looms directly above two major freshwater aquifers which supply drinking water for a large portion of Oahu residents and the entire Pearl Harbor military base.
The general public in 2014 learned of concerns when a corroded area of one tank, undetected by the ultrasonic sensor checks, gave way, resulting in the spillage of 27,000 gallons of fuel. Though the release was quickly contained, residents and lawmakers realized that a future leak could contaminate the nearby drinking water aquifers. However, little action was taken on the Navy’s part to upgrade and refurbish the aged tanks due to their difficult placement in the rock.
In 2021 a sudden, yet seemingly inevitable disaster occurred when a failed fuel transfer caused the pipeline to rupture, spraying 19,983 gallons of fuel into the drain line, where the gasoline sat for 6 months. The incident was quickly covered up and hidden from the public. When a later operator error broke the drain line, fuel cascaded into the Pearl Harbor base drinking water aquifer and nearly into the public aquifer for the capital city of Honolulu. Military families and staff quickly discovered their tap water at the base possessed a darkish sheen and smelled of fuel. A full investigation was launched into the Navy’s handling of the Red Hill facility and the consequences of this leakage. Currently, tensions between Hawaiian residents and the U.S. military are at an all-time high, as public protests demand an immediate shutdown of Red Hill.
The story of the Red Hill Facility is a warning to us all about the dangers of complacency and faulty risk evaluation. The safety of both civilians and the environment must always be prioritized over cost efficiency and stubbornness in the upkeep of major infrastructure.
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