Editor’s Note: As this issue went to press, the Department of Defense announced their plans to shut down the Red Hill Facility. Although this is the first step in the right direction, the US Military must continue to be held accountable to ensure it follows through with its promises. This crisis had dire environmental consequences and affected countless Hawai’i families. The Navy must also work toward addressing these harms and ensuring nothing like this will happen again.
Hawai’i and its residents continue to face an ongoing water crisis, one that everyone should pay close attention to.
In early December, the US Navy confirmed the contamination of the Red Hill well, located on the island of O’ahu, which pumps drinking water to hundreds of military and civilian families in the area. Over Thanksgiving weekend, complaints came in from military housing residents, who said that their water smelled of fuel and that family and pets were falling ill. Testing showed that the water systems contained levels of gasoline and diesel hydrocarbons as much as 350 times higher than state standards for safe drinking water.
The suspected source of the contamination is the Navy’s World War II-era Red Hill fuel facility, which sits just 100 feet above a groundwater aquifer that supplies seventy-seven percent of O’ahu’s total water. The Navy has admitted that they can no longer access the tanks and therefore, they are impossible to maintain.
Searching for solutions
The Sierra Club of Hawaii first got involved with Red Hill after a major leak was reported in January 2014. According to the Sierra Club, the facility has recorded at least 73 fuel leaks totaling at least 180,000 gallons since 1943. “It became abundantly clear that the facility posed an inherent and existential threat to our water supply, and we realized that the facility in fact had never been regulated or permitted under state law,” says Wayne Tanaka, Director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii.
He continues, “There are only two things that can keep us safe: 1) defueling of the Red Hill Facility and 2) decommissioning the facility permanently so that our principal water source is never again threatened with the risk of catastrophic contamination.”
Although other Navy hubs across the country have shut down their own underground fuel facilities built in the same era, Navy officials in Hawai’i have been resistant. Military officials are adamant that the facility is still needed as a strategic military asset and Red Hill is promoted as a vital fuel source in case of a state emergency or natural disaster. However, the Hawai’i Department of Health Environmental Health Administration has said that it does not believe Red Hill can operate in a way that protects human health and the environment.
Once an aquifer is significantly contaminated, there is little that can be done. The water can be decontaminated, however, the greater the contamination, the more expensive that process becomes and the less feasible it is.
These events have led to the displacement of thousands of affected military-base residents. Although most press coverage has been on military families, many civilians have felt effects from contamination as well, and receive less assistance than those employed by the federal government. Over 93,000 residents have been affected by this water crisis so far.
“It’s honestly ridiculous that this isn’t being taken seriously,” said O’ahu resident Tiare Brown, whose family lives in what was once military housing. The properties were purchased by an outside company, but the Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command (NAVFAC) still controls the water and electricity. “They don’t offer much to civilians other than cases of water, and the little that they do feels inaccessible,” Brown shared. To make matters worse, the property company that owns their home and others in the area is now raising rent prices, even with the known water contamination.
Tanaka feels similarly regarding the affected civilian population, calling the Navy’s (and property manager’s) treatment of these families “absolutely dismal.” “The fact that they are still being charged rent and, at minimum, are now being asked to also front the costs of relocating to alternative lodging is outrageous.”
Although this crisis threatens to permanently damage O’ahu and its residents, the Navy continues to refuse to acknowledge this fact. From the onset, Navy representatives have downplayed the severity of these events. “We have no immediate indication that the water is unsafe to drink,” said representatives, even after its own drinking water well was quietly shut down.
In early December, the Hawai’i Department of Health ordered the Navy to suspend operations at Red Hill and defuel its underground storage tanks. The Navy then informed the state that it would contest the order. In a recent Hawai’i Department of Health evidentiary hearing, the Navy’s Assistant Secretary refused to acknowledge the contamination as a crisis (calling it an “urgent and compelling situation” instead) and even went so far as to complain about missing a Monday night football game to attend the hearing.
A complex relationship
Hawai’i has a long and complicated history with the US Government and especially with its military, starting from the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. For residents, it’s hard to ignore the presence of the military. Even civilians who live near the many bases get used to hearing the morning bugle call that plays every day at 8AM. As one of the state’s largest employers, it’s almost impossible to avoid having some ties to the US military. Residents have learned to coexist with the military, and it’s easy to sometimes forget the environmental and cultural impact of its presence in the state. And although most value the contributions made by the military, it cannot excuse the years of inaction on fixing these dire issues.
The military has a history of limiting access to lands, dictating the preservation of cultural sites, and has been criticized for the impact they’ve made to the environment (including decades of bombing the smallest of the eight islands, Kaho’olawe), often clashing with Native Hawaiian activists.
Many residents find the lack of accountability and action from the Navy appalling, along with the lack of support from the US Government (including President Biden, who has yet to acknowledge the situation). There has been shockingly little national media coverage, leaving many Americans either wholly unaware of these events or uneducated about their severity.
This is an issue that should be alarming to everyone in the United States. As Tanaka states,
Hundreds of billions of dollars that could be spent on addressing climate change, fixing our healthcare system, investing in the education needed to enrich our society and our national economy are being spent every year on a bloated and wasteful institution that is literally destroying the planet by leaders who have demonstrated nothing but denial, incompetence, and blind commitment to a decrepit WWII-era facility. If we don’t stop rewarding incompetence and start holding the military accountable now, how much more resources will this country waste?
The Navy finally announced that it will comply with the state emergency order to drain the Red Hill tanks. But it is up to the larger public to hold them accountable and to make sure they shut down Red Hill entirely.
Water rights continue to be a very pressing matter around the world. Everyone, especially humanists who realize that the earth is our only home, should talk to their friends and neighbors about what this situation means for Hawai’i, the United States, and the rest of the world. To learn more, you can visit www.sierraclubhawaii.org/redhill, and follow on-the-ground groups like the O’ahu Water Protectors (@oahuWP on Twitter; @oahuwaterprotectors on Facebook and Instagram) and Ka’ohewai (@kaohewai) on social media.
Please consider reaching out to your Congressional delegation, as well as President Biden, to let them know that it is time to start holding the Department of Defense accountable, which includes shutting the Red Hill Facility down, immediately, permanently, and safely.