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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

HONOLULU, Hawai’i — In November a massive military fuel facility spilled 19,000 gallons of mixed water and fuel, and contaminated drinking water for 93,000 people near Honolulu.

The spill set off a cascade of other events, and now the people of Honolulu have been asked to cut their water use by 10 percent. Native Hawaiians are concerned about the long-term effects of the spill and some would like the military to leave Hawai’i.

The Red Hill Fuel Facility is made up of 20 fuel tanks each 100 feet in diameter, 250 feet tall, and capable of holding 12.5 million gallons, for a total of 250 million gallons. The tanks are situated just 100 feet above an aquifer. They’re lined with steel, encased in cement, and buried 100 feet inside a rock mountain.

That seems sturdy enough but the tanks were built and installed during World War II to refuel planes and ships serving the Pacific region, and critics say they were not well maintained. 

The Nov. 20 spill contaminated a well serving Joint Navy-Air Force Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

This wasn’t the first leak from the Red Hill facility. Among other incidents, the tanks discharged 27,000 gallons in January 2014 and 1,600 gallons in May 2021. Critics say those are just the spills that have become public and there are possibly many more that have gone unreported.

Native Hawaiians said the military was long indifferent to the risk of spills. Kuuipo Kumukahi, Native Hawaiian, said her father long ago saw the potential for leaks from the tanks.

“My father was one of those young boys that was hired to bury those tanks. And…he knew it wasn't right. He knew that one day – he would say it in Hawaiian– ‘one day, those tanks will deteriorate. They have to shut it down.’ But you know, my father's been passed away for over 20 years.” Kumukahi is a musician, and Hyatt director of Hawaiian culture and community.

The Honolulu Water Supply Board, which manages water resources and distribution for about 1 million customers on the island of Oahu has as its mission Ka Wai Ola, or “Water for Life.” Board Manager and Engineer Ernest Lau also had warned of the risk of leaks and spills for years.

The military’s disregard for the risk the tanks flies in the face of Hawaiian culture, which is centered around Aloha,” said Kumukahi. Aloha, a “spiritual space,” she said, rests on “responsibility, love, patience, unity, kindness, humility, unpretentiousness,” and means “to care for one another.” It also relates to the interconnectedness of all things, she said.

A tunnel inside the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility is seen in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Jan. 26, 2018. U.S. public health officials on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, began investigating how civilians have been affected by the leakage of petroleum into Pearl Harbor's tap water from a Navy fuel storage facility. The Hawaii state Department of Health said it asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to conduct the study. (U.S. Navy via AP, File)

“The spirit comes through mele, or songs and chants. Mele speaks about the land. It speaks about the natural resources. It speaks about each other…It speaks about anything, everything, the wind, the rain. Every wind and rain has a name and we name things because they're personal. Once you do that, you're related to it. There's a personal connection to your space and time,” Kumukahi said.

In the days following the Nov. 20 spill, the state Department of Health received some 500 calls from base residents complaining of petroleum odors coming from their tap water. Some also reported nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, and skin rashes, as well as sick pets.

On Nov. 28, the Navy closed contaminated wells. In early December, the Navy moved thousands of people into hotels and other temporary housing.

In December, more than 50 organizations – among them Sierra Club, O’ahu Water Protectors, Wai Ola Alliance, and Hawai’i Peace and Justice – formed a coalition called Kaʻohewai, or Water Protectors. Over the next few months they held several rallies that drew dozens and sometimes hundreds of protesters. Michelle Broder Van Dyke described a Dec. 12 protest in Spectrum News.

“Native Hawaiians organized by Kaʻohewai gathered in front of the headquarters for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Here, they built and dedicated a koʻa — a shrine consisting of circular piles of stone and coral used in ceremonies that multiply abundance, in this case water, and all the Hawaiian gods associated with life,” she wrote.

Broder Van Dyke quoted a Facebook post of Kalehua Krug, one of Ka’ohewai’s leaders. “Nothing is more important to the well-being of our islands and the life it supports than wai, precious water. Wai is a kino lau (body form) of our gods Kāne and Kanaloa. When we think of land and water as the bodies of our gods who nurture life, we care for those bodies. When we see land and water as commodities for human benefit, we exploit them. We are here to protect Kāne and Kanaloa,” Krug said.

He said, “the United States Navy does not care about Oahu and its people. That is clear. It is as though they genuinely lost the knowledge on how to care for our world and its resources. To find something lost, however, all one must do is return to the last place that you saw it. The last place when our water was safe was when the Indigenous worldview and the voice of the Hawaiian people guided the stewardship of āina (the land). We speak for the land now.”

Oahu relies on regular and plentiful spring rainfall to recharge aquifers but Oahu – in fact most of Hawai’i – is experiencing drought conditions. Fresh water in Hawaiian aquifers floats on top of heavier salt water. Drawing down too much water from an aquifer can lead to salt water intrusion into the freshwater.

Hawaii waterfall (Phil Price, courtesy of Creative Commons).

On Dec. 3 and Dec. 8, the Honolulu Water Supply Board shut down first one, then two more wells that had supplied about 20 percent of Honolulu’s drinking water.

The board closed them to make sure that pumping didn’t cause fuel contamination in the Navy’s drinking water system to migrate into the city’s wells, as well as to prevent saltwater intrusion. If city water were to be contaminated, some 400,000 Honolulu residents could be impacted. The wells will be closed possibly for years while officials investigate how and where water percolates through the ground.

On Dec. 5, the governor and health department issued an emergency order directing the military to stop using and to empty the Red Hill Fuel Facility. The military paused facility operations but challenged the order to defuel the tanks.

On Dec. 27, a hearing officer recommended the Navy comply with the state order. However, the Navy, citing its many safeguards in place, argued that wasn’t necessary. The Navy finally agreed on Jan. 11 to empty the tanks but still contested the legal grounds for the state’s order.

In February, three members of Hawaii’s Congressional delegation said they were introducing legislation to permanently shut down Red Hill.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III announced on March 7 the military’s decision to “defuel and permanently close the Red Hill bulk fuel storage facility in Hawai'i.” He said the military would move to a more dispersed fueling system for ships and aircraft in the Indo-Pacific.

Wayne Tanaka, manager of Public Policy at the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, reacted to the military’s decision on Wayne’s Sierra Club World website, saying the people of Hawai’i spoke out so loudly “that the leader of the planet’s most powerful military has recognized and, to some degree, conceded to our demands to #ShutDownRedHill.

He credited protesters, who he said were driven by “a deep sense of connection to each other, to the ‘āina (land), to our ancestors and our future generations.

“And it is this special unity that we will need to continue to hold onto, because we are still in harm’s way, and this crisis is far, far from over,” Tanaka said.

A view of Waikiki, HA, March 25, 2022 (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, ICT)

U.S. Rep Kai Kahele, Native Hawaiian, who had introduced legislation to shut down Red Hill, called the Pentagon’s announcement cause for relief and celebration.

“I fully support the Department of Defense in its decision to permanently defuel and permanently close the World War II-era fuel storage tanks at Red Hill. This is a much-needed and overdue step, but it is in no way an end to the Department’s obligations to the people of Hawaiʻi on this issue,” the Democrat from Hawai’i said.

“It is imperative that the Department of Defense guarantee funding for full remediation of Oʻahu’s aquifer,” Kahele said. “The community has been loud and clear: ola i ka wai. Water is life.”

Meanwhile, on March 10, the board asked consumers to cut water use by 10 percent.

“We're in a crisis situation. Our water supply is threatened. We have less water available to meet our community's needs, but we can get through this together. We can save water,” Lau said in a public service announcement.

“We knew that having to ask for voluntary conservation was a possibility. We had hoped we could avoid this. Unfortunately, we are in a difficult situation not of our own making,” he said in a news release.

“We need to reduce overall island demand to protect our groundwater resources from depleting,” Lau said. “This is necessary to ensure that Oahu’s drinking water supply remains healthy and sustainable over the long term.”

Developers have been sent letters warning about the potentially looming water shortage, and heavy water users have been asked to cut back. Lau said if voluntary conservation doesn’t work, the county may need to put progressively restrictive mandatory conservation measures in place later in the year.

The military has requested $150 million to empty and close the fuel facility. That’s in addition to $100 million in a stopgap appropriation that the president signed.

Following a 30-gallon spill on April 1, Alison Bath of the Stars and Stripes reports the Navy officer in charge of the Red Hill facility was relieved of duty on April 4.

Water protectors say the fight is not yet over.

Krug told Indian Country Today, “ultimately what we want is the Navy to be more transparent.”

He said boards and commissions as well as Native Hawaiian organizations such as Kaʻohewai (Water Protectors) need access to the actual data coming from the water pumps and test sites.

Krug said the public also needs to step up again. “I think most of the conversations have stopped right now.” 

Public involvement is needed because the spills will continue until the facility is completely shut down, and public pressure is needed to ensure that happens as soon as possible, he said.

“I think subsequent to this, it's more about not so much what we want the Navy to do, but that we want our state government, we want our Indigenous organizations to press to end all of the federal leases with the United States military. They're coming up in 2029, and some really significant cultural sites for us as Hawaiian people (are at risk),” he said.

“Basically the entirety of Oahu's water system is in jeopardy for national security and they've shown that they are not the appropriate stewards for our water, for our resources, for our land. And so (we need to) to end and terminate all of the contracts that we have with them, especially in regards to how they manage or mismanage our land and our resources,” Krug said.

Water protectors say there's more work to be done to protect the water supply for Honolulu and O'ahu.

See a detailed timeline of events here.

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