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Deputy defense secretary discusses shipyard upgrades, Red Hill

Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility Pump Room. (Shannon Haney/U.S. Navy)

In March the Navy awarded a $2.8 billion contract to Honolulu-based joint venture Dragados / Hawaiian Dredging /Orion JV to replace Dry Dock 3 with the yet-to-be built Dry Dock 5.

Ambitious modernization efforts at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and getting an update on Red Hill defueling efforts were at the top of the agenda of a recent visit by U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who visited Oahu to tour facilities and hold meetings with senior military leaders and members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation.

In March the Navy awarded a $2.8 billion contract to Honolulu-based joint venture Dragados / Hawaiian Dredging /Orion JV to replace Dry Dock 3 with the yet-to-be built Dry Dock 5.

“This is the largest investment military construction project in (Department of Defense ) history that we’re doing here, ” Hicks said.

But the latest markup for a congressional military construction bill proposes $1.5 billion in cuts to military construction, including slashes in funding for the dry dock, leading to concerns about whether the project will stay on schedule. In June, U.S. Rep. Ed Case criticized fellow lawmakers for the cuts during a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee, where a number of Republicans on the committee have been pushing for spending cuts after a bitter fight over raising the debt ceiling.

“I can’t believe that my colleagues believe that we should throw off this project, considering the national security implications, ” Case said in remarks during a meeting of the committee. “I can’t believe that my colleagues would want us to get to 2028 and have Virginia-class attack submarines wandering around the Pacific looking for a place to get their maintenance.”

PHNSY, the shipyard, is the state’s largest industrial employer with more than 6, 000 employees. The five-year dry-dock project is to ensure it can continue to maintain the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s new nuclear-powered submarines. Current estimates project that Dry Dock 5 will cost $3 billion to $4 billion by the time of its expected completion in 2028.

Built in 1942, Dry Dock 3 is unable to service the Navy’s newer Virginia-class submarines or larger surface ships. It will become functionally obsolete once the Navy retires the last of its Los Angeles-class submarines.

“Things are complicated right now on Capitol Hill, ” Hicks said. “Our biggest concern, which we do share with the (Hawaii ) delegation, is making sure the appropriations actually come and that they’re on time and we avoid a continuing resolution or, even worse, a government shutdown. So we’ve been really trying alongside them to make the point that projects like this cannot proceed on time and on schedule unless we get those appropriations.”

The dry-dock project is a key part part of the $21 billion Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program, which aims to upgrade shipyards around the country over a span of 20 years. For decades, Congress gave the Navy money for new vessels and weapons the service requested, but now the Navy is playing catch-up in funding the construction and maintenance of the facilities it needs to maintain those systems and keep them working.

The Navy established SIOP to improve operations at the four U.S. public shipyards with an eye toward updating their layouts, modernizing dry docks and replacing antiquated equipment and worn-down old facilities. A major emphasis is infrastructure to support nuclear-powered subs and warships.

Pearl Harbor’s location makes it a key logistical hub for the Navy’s operations across the Pacific. But a 2021 Government Accountability Office report warned that facilities at PHNSY in their current state might not be capable of repairing battle-damaged vessels in the event of an armed conflict in the Pacific, forcing them to travel to the mainland if they need extensive repairs.

The Navy has been conducting near-constant global operations. The high operational demands have taken a toll on its fleets, and aging shipyards are struggling to meet maintenance demands, resulting in a growing backlog of needed repairs and tune-ups for many vessels. Some military reviews have reported that a significant portion of the Navy’s fast-­attack submarines are both behind schedule on maintenance and have lost critical dive certifications.

The stress of meeting these demands has also taken a toll on sailors assigned to vessels undergoing maintenance. A rash of suicides by sailors at shipyards around the country in recent years has prompted lawmakers and veterans advocates to raise questions about work and living conditions in the shipyards.

Between 2019 and 2021 as many as three Navy submarine sailors on Oahu died by suicide while their subs were in dry dock at PHNSY, including a December 2019 incident in which a sailor guarding the Los Angeles-­class sub USS Columbia killed two civilian dockworkers and wounded another before taking his own life. Navy investigations found that crews reported.

Hicks said that the administration of President Joe Biden hopes to improve work and living conditions for both civilian shipyard workers and service members. During her tour, she asked officials how they were addressing quality-of-life issues as they planned modernization efforts at Pearl Harbor.

“What’s good for the workforce is good for productivity, ” Hicks said. “Better parking, faster commute times, making sure they have bathrooms and ventilation and places to eat. And all of that seems to be built into how they’re thinking through this.”

Case told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, “We’re dealing with a post-debt ceiling insistence from a small group of members of Congress, and primarily in the Freedom Caucus, who believe we should return to FY 2022 spending levels. And so unfortunately, my colleagues in the majority in the House feel that they need to go along with this perspective, for now, at least.”

But Case said he feels confident that given increased tensions with China, the rest of the funding will ultimately make its way to PHNSY and other military facilities in the Pacific.

“I don’t think it’s going to stand as we get through the process, ” Case said of the proposed cuts. “(I’m ) certainly going to make sure it doesn’t stand.”

Hicks’ visit also included a meeting with Joint Task Force Red Hill commander Vice Adm. John Wade, the officer tasked with draining the 104 million gallons of fuel currently stored in tanks at the Navy’s underground Red Hill fuel storage facility. The aging World War II-era tanks sit just 100 feet above a critical aquifer that most of Honolulu relies on for drinking water.

In November 2021, fuel from the facility contaminated the Navy’s Oahu water system, which serves 93, 000 people—including both military families and civilian families living in former military housing areas. After months of resisting an emergency order from the state to defuel the Red Hill tanks, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in March 2022 ordered for the facility to be permanently closed and for the military to pursue a “distributed ” fuel storage plan placing reserves in smaller tanks and aboard tankers across the region.

Military and civilian inspectors concluded that over the past 80 years, the Red Hill facility and the pipelines connecting it to Pearl Harbor—which the Navy had long contended were critical to its operations in the Pacific—had fallen into such a state of disrepair that fuel couldn’t be safely extracted until after extensive repairs have been made. In June, JTF Red Hill said that it had completed all the necessary repairs.

“We, Secretary Austin and I back in Washington, are routinely in contact with (JTF Red Hill ) leadership, but it was good to have that in-person touch, ” Hicks said.

When Wade took over JTF Red Hill, he had a target completion date of summer 2024, though he said he intended to look for ways to move faster. This summer, officials announced they now expect to begin defueling operations in October and complete most of the effort in January.

However, when the military announced it would shut down Red Hill, a senior Pentagon official told the Star-Advertiser that it was unclear whether the military had enough facilities and fuel tankers to take on the massive reserve at Red Hill. But Hicks insisted that the Pentagon has worked out its plans and is ready to move forward as it prepares to remove the fuel from the tanks.

“(I’m ) confident that we can consume that fuel appropriately in the near term as (Red Hill ) is defueled, and at the same time, we are already moving or have moved to a more distributed fuel profile.”

The Red Hill crisis has prompted many Hawaii residents to rethink their relationship with the military presence in Hawaii. Several other toxic spills at military facilities around the islands have drawn increased scrutiny. As the military prepares to store fuel elsewhere, including other island communities and allied countries across the region, Hicks said, “We have to take environmental stewardship seriously. And we do, and that’s a priority for this administration, and it’s going to continue to be a priority, obviously, for many of our allies and partners as well.”

When asked how the military will guarantee that the fuel is moved and stored safely, she replied that “we are in 2023. It’s a significantly different time frame than the period in which Red Hill was built. And so we obviously work under the standards that exist today, which do reinforce all of those environmental stewardship approaches. We don’t have anything like Red Hill in that plan we have or that we’re using today.”

Local leaders had called for years for Red Hill to be shut down, especially after a 2014 fuel spill, warning that it was a “ticking time bomb ” over Oahu’s water supply. Military officials insisted that the World War II facility was safe and that they were diligently maintaining it. Red Hill operations leading up to the water crisis have become the subject of a federal criminal probe led by Krishna Dighe, senior counsel with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.


(c) 2023 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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