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Officer who Oversaw Red Hill Defueling to Command Navy’s Third Fleet

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Vice Adm. John Wade, former commander of the joint task force that oversaw removal of most of the fuel in the Navy’s Red Hill facility, has been officially nominated to take over the Navy’s 3rd Fleet in San Diego.

The Pentagon on Thursday released two top command nominations by President Joe Biden. The announcement also said Rear Adm. Michael Vernazza, current commander of the Fleet Information Warfare Command Pacific at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, has been nominated for promotion to vice admiral to command Naval Information Forces in Suffolk, Va. The nominations require congressional approval and are expected to pass.

As commander of the 3rd Fleet, Wade would command vessels and aircraft based in California, Washington state and Hawaii — which includes five aircraft carrier strike groups and more than 30 submarines.

Wade had been serving as operations officer for U.S. Indo­-Pacific Command at Camp Smith before he was recommended in 2022 by then INDOPACOM Commander Adm. John Aquilino to lead Joint Task Force Red Hill.

“I immediately thought of my grandmother,” Wade later told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in an interview. “She would talk about the importance and the meaning of hard work but that when hard work contributes to the betterment of others, then there’s no greater purpose. As I looked at this problem, I said, ‘It’s a humanitarian and … an environmental mission.'”

Wade, who comes from a working-class New York family, attended the U.S. Naval Academy. His first time in Hawaii was sailing in to Pearl Harbor as a midshipman during a training cruise aboard the USS Germantown in 1987. He found himself in and out of the islands throughout his career, but perhaps no assignment was higher-stakes than Red Hill.

He’d never even set foot inside the facility until he got the mission. The Red Hill facility’s massive fuel tanks sit just 100 feet above a critical aquifer that most of Oahu relies on for drinking water. It was built underground during World War II both to hide it and protect it from Japanese forces. After the war it became a critical strategic fuel reserve for the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet.

It was also a subject of controversy. Local officials and activists raised concerns that it was a threat to Oahu’s water, while Navy officials maintained it was vital for national security and perfectly safe.

But in November 2021, jet fuel from the facility tainted the Navy’s Oahu water system, which serves 93,000 people, including service members, military families and civilians in former military housing areas on the Navy waterline. Several residents who reported getting seriously ill are in the midst of a federal lawsuit trial playing out in court in Honolulu.

After months of resisting a state emergency order to drain the tanks, in March 2022 the Pentagon announced it would defuel and permanently shut down the facility. In September 2022, Wade took command of the task force at a time when relations between local residents and military leadership was at near-historic lows.

Despite years of assurances of safety from the Navy, by then the service acknowledged that the facility and the pipelines connecting it to Joint Base Pearl Harbor­-Hickam actually had fallen into deep disrepair and that the tanks and pipelines would require extensive repairs and upgrades to safely remove the fuel without risking further spills and water contamination.

“Every day that fuel is sitting there is a threat to our community and to the environment, ” Wade told reporters at his first news conference in October 2022. He said he would work to get the fuel out by summer of 2024, or sooner if repairs could be made faster — and pledged he would look for ways to expedite the process. He noted that it was his first assignment that had no end date — there would be no change of command until the mission was over.

Wade freely admitted he had no background in engineering or fuel storage, but said he would work to get the best people on the ground — JTF-RH included experts and specialists from each military branch along with dozens of civilians. Wade quickly became the face of the Red Hill effort, finding himself angrily shouted down at community meetings and regularly confronted by Red Hill families and activists.

But he gradually earned praise from some. He invited Board of Water Supply Manager Ernie Lau, a fierce critic of the Navy who for years had called for Red Hill’s shutdown, to sit on a task force information-sharing group that included several local officials and community leaders.

“When I sit down as a person, (Wade is) somebody easy to talk to, and he appears to listen,” Lau later told the Star-Advertiser, though he added that getting information from the military was “still very challenging.”

Wade’s mission expanded after 1,300 gallons of toxic firefighting foam spilled in the Red Hill facility in November 2022. Wade initially told reporters there was no video of the incident, but said he later learned that there was. He told the Star-Advertiser the lack of coordination by the various agencies and contractors working in the facility contributed to that spill and subsequent confusion. Wade and JTF-RH began overseeing all operations in the facility and keeping a close eye over contractors who went in and out.

By the summer of 2023, JTF-RH had completed most of its repairs ahead of schedule and found workarounds to speed the process. Defueling officially began in October, and by March the task force successfully had removed 104,703,574 gallons from above the aquifer. Commercial tankers ferried fuel to West Oahu facilities run by Island Energy Services at Campbell Industrial Park and to a fuel storage point in San Diego, one in the Philippines and another in Singapore.

Closure and remediation of Red Hill will be overseen by the newly formed Navy Closure Task Force Red Hill, a task that’s expected to take years. During an exit interview before officially stepping down as task force commander, Wade told the Star-Advertiser that “defueling had its own challenges and risks, (and that) closure and long-term environmental remediation will bring new challenges and new risks. So it’s critical to the … health of the workers and the community and the environment to focus on safety.”

From San Diego, Wade’s area of responsibility at the Third Fleet will include portions of both the Eastern and Northern Pacific stretching into parts of the Arctic as competition for influence in the region heats up with Russia and China. The Third Fleet’s missions also include assisting with the fight against illegal fishing through the Oceania Maritime Security Initiative — which conducts patrols in partnership with the Coast Guard and Pacific island countries — as well as drug war missions off the Pacific coasts of South and Central America.

___

(c)2024 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Visit The Honolulu Star-Advertiser at www.staradvertiser.com

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