▶ Watch Video: Tainted water crisis in Hawaii displaces military families

The Pentagon has shut down a leaking U.S Navy fuel tank facility in Hawaii after the tank contaminated drinking water for thousands of Hawaii residents, the Defense Department announced Monday. The Red Hill bulk fuel storage facility will be defueled as soon as possible, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin  said in a letter Monday, citing modern fueling needs that have rendered the facility obsolete. 

Built in Oahu in 1943, the facility is made up of 20 steel-lined underground tanks, which can hold up to 250 million gallons of fuel. But the tank was built directly above an aquifer responsible for 20% of Honolulu’s drinking water, according to the Associated Press. 

According to Austin, the Secretary of the Navy and Director of the Defense Logistics Agency will provide a 12-month plan to defuel the facility by May 31, which will include “environmental remediation” to clean the water the fuel leaked into. 

“We will continue our work with the Hawaii Department of Health, national and local elected officials, and other community leaders, to clean up the water at the Red Hill well,” Austin wrote Monday.  “And we will develop an environmental mitigation plan to address any future contamination concerns. The same goes for our workforce and their families. 

A tunnel inside the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility is seen in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Jan. 26, 2018. The U.S. Navy will comply with Hawaii’s order to remove fuel from a massive underground storage tank facility near Pearl Harbor blamed for contaminating drinking water, officials said Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. 

Shannon Haney / AP

The news comes following a months-long struggle between Hawaii residents and U.S Navy officials. After homeowners complained of water that smelled like petroleum, the Navy released a statement that the water was safe to drink. But after continued complaints of illness and strange smelling water, Joint Base Commander of Pearl Harbor-Hickam Captain Erik Spritzer apologized on December 5, saying officials had misread the water tests and petroleum had been identified. 

Over 3,000 military families were driven from their phones as a result of the contamination, according to the Pentagon. The contamination also spread to households that were not associated with the military. Residents affected by the spill have been vocal about the stress, injury and psychological damage they felt by not being taken seriously by officials. 

“You feel like every piece of water you touch now is contaminated regardless of where you are because the damage has already been done,” mother of two Frances Paulino told CBS News. “It just puts us in a position where we don’t feel like we can ever trust having that safe space in our homes anymore. That’s been robbed of us. That feeling of security and serenity that you feel when you walk through the front door is totally obliterated for us.”

U.S. Navy officials have maintained that since December 16  the water is now safe to drink, but the investigation into how the leak occurred is still ongoing.  

“Your health has been impacted, your lives and livelihoods have been disrupted, and in many cases, your very homes have been rendered unavailable to you,” Austin said  Monday. “We owe you the very best health care we can provide, answers to your many questions, and clean, safe drinking water. Quite frankly, we owe you a return to normal. And you have my commitment to that end.”

Eleanor Watson contributed to this report.