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NEWS | March 6, 2023

Joint Task Force-Red Hill celebrates Engineer Week, recognizes important role engineers play in executing mission

By Staff Sgt. Orlando Copuz Joint Task Force Red Hill

In recognition of engineer roles in defueling the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility (RHBFSF), Joint Task Force-Red Hill (JTF-RH), the recently established military organization tasked with defueling, joined the engineering community and its cohorts in celebrating National Engineers Week, Feb. 19 to 25. Celebrated every year since being initiated by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) in 1951, the week of recognition is held to highlight the important role Engineers play in society.

The JTF-RH employs upwards of 60 engineers as it executes its mission to safely and expeditiously de-fuel the RHBFSF, which currently holds more than 104 million gallons of fuel. Engineer week provides an opportunity for the JTF-RH to highlight the critical role its engineers play in moving the mission forward.

“It’s a time for engineers across all spectrums to come together and share their stories and lessons learned and get different perspectives,” said U.S. Army Maj. Stephen Buck, an engineering officer for JTF-RH. "Not only is it a reconnection in our field, but it’s also a reminder to keep looking at what's going on around the world and to keep that strong center and foundation of the Engineering Corps.”

The RHBFSF was constructed under 100 feet of volcanic rock, and consists of 20 fuel tanks, that were innovatively designed and constructed during the latter half of World War II. The original plan called for burying four fuel containers horizontally in a hillside at the U.S. Navy facility at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Ultimately, this became the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility with construction of 20 vertical storage tanks - each 100 feet in diameter and 250 feet high - and connected by tunnels to a harbor-side pumping station more than two-and-a-half miles away.

Construction on the Red Hill facility began the day after Christmas 1940 and continued daily without interruption – with the exception of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Work on the first tank was completed in September 1942, and the entire project was finished in September 1943, requiring over 3,900 workers. During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Red Hill was used as a transfer point for fuel moving from the U.S. mainland to the Persian Gulf. The RHBFSF was registered as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

While the construction of the facility was a significant Engineering accomplishment, it was built 100 feet above the islands fresh water aquifer. In the past several years, several fuel leaks have led to contamination of the aquifer leading to the decision by the DOD in March 2022, to defuel and permanently close the facility.

The array of engineers assembled by JTF-RH hail from many different disciplines, but these military and civilian experts remain singularly focused on solving the complex issues associated with defueling a subterranean fuel storage facility.

According to Buck, engineers are tailor-made to be assigned to a mission such as JTF-RH.

“The engineering background really helps when it comes to the amounts and types of calculations,” Buck said. "There are a lot of unexpected things that can turn up and we have to calculate solutions and work with the contractors to get the necessary materials.”

When not on military duty, Buck, a U.S. Army Reserve Soldier assigned to U.S. Army Pacific Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, Engineering Directorate, works as a contracting officer’s representative team lead for Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. A graduate of Lake Mary High School, Lake Mary, Florida, he moved to Kailua-Kona on the Hawaii island at age eighteen and is a graduated from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

For Buck, a permanent Hawaii resident with close family ties to the islands, the defueling mission takes on a personal tone.

“It feels good to be part of this mission where we're involved with ensuring the safety of the community,” Buck said. “There’s a lot of personal ties for me being a local resident and being a part of this community.”

According to Buck, there’s no need for a special week, but it's nice to have. Being part of the JTF-RH mission is enough. “It's a unique experience being a part of this Joint Task Force. There’s a lot of pieces, but it’s definitely worthwhile.” said Buck.