Danny De Gracia: The Red Hill Water Crisis Is Also A Crisis Of Government - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

The environmental risk posed by the Navy’s fuel tanks at Red Hill is now the most grave and terrifying crisis to face Oahu residents.

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The November discovery of fuel in a well providing drinking water for some 93,000 people has put front and center not only how dangerous it is to have massive underground storage tanks just 100 feet above an aquifer, but also how quickly something left out of sight and out of mind can devolve into an existential threat.

Between the U.S. military, the state and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, everyone is pointing fingers at each other. Meanwhile, the public, as always, will suffer as our government tries to figure out who to blame, who to take to court and who to make pay for their collective failures.

As is so often the case, many of us find ourselves asking “How could this possibly happen?” or “Who could have foreseen these events?” It is here that we should use the Red Hill crisis as an opportunity to reform our government and to think about ways to prevent these kinds of nasty surprises from constantly unraveling the community’s safety or peace.

So first, let’s think about the issue of how it is possible that a known problem like Red Hill could be allowed to go on for so long. The problem is not so much bad fuel tanks, but rather, bad government.

Gen. Hugh Shelton, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, once wrote of a bureaucratic problem he termed “drinking duck syndrome.”

When newspapers started to report during the late 1990s about serious problems developing in the military, the first thing Shelton did was to gather all his service chiefs together at the Pentagon and ask if they had any problems. Predictably, the chiefs denied anything was wrong, and all nodded their heads in agreement – like a row of ducks drinking water together – that things couldn’t be better.

Not believing his chiefs, Shelton then reached deep into the military ranks and asked the lower ranking lieutenant colonels and commanders actually in charge of troops and equipment what the situation was, and discovered to his horror that the military was indeed falling apart. Army buildings were dilapidated, Marine battalions were unfit for combat, and Air Force aircraft were missing engines, just to name a few.

Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu leads protocols held near the Makalapa CINCPAC and military housing entrance in opposition to the Red Hill fuel leak. December 12, 2021
Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu leads demonstrators near the Pacific Fleet headquarters to show opposition to the Red Hill fuel storage facility as concerns rise over a contaminated drinking water crisis. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Why then would leaders in charge of important resources and manpower sign off and say nothing is wrong when, in fact, everything is wrong? Why not just do something about it? The answer of course has to do with the fact that in career government, few people want to be the one who says, “We have a serious problem and have to do something about it.”

In both military and civilian government, people want to program their careers to be an elevator to the top slots of authority. Problems are often seen as blights on one’s performance, so rather than fixing a problem, people in government love to redefine a problem as not being a problem, and so, perils are allowed to grow in secret.

Oahu residents may have been shocked to learn the Navy believes Red Hill can be “safely operated” until 2045, but in truth, it’s a post-Cold War bureaucratic pattern — the U.S. military loves to say everything can last until 2040-something, whether it’s fuel tanks, B-52 bombers and so on.

There will always be a technical research paper to justify preserving the status quo, until, of course, a disaster happens and then everyone wonders how we got there.

What is needed is a frankness in government so those in positions of authority do what is right and sound the alarm when things need to change. The Red Hill fuel tanks are toxic to the environment, but what is even more toxic is our organizational culture in government.

Government is a knives-out, unforgiving place where it’s “up or out” career-wise. This causes leaders to often be risk-averse so they hide problems or dismiss problems out of fear of not being promoted or losing their jobs. This is the worst possible way to run a military or a civilian government because problems are allowed to fester, nobody learns from mistakes and incompetence is masked by showmanship. And that is the biggest lesson we need to all learn in 2021.

To be a great government leader, one needs initiative, attention-to-detail and moral courage. So, let’s get started. I know some think that shutting down Red Hill will somehow endanger U.S. posture in the Pacific, but that’s a cop-out. Red Hill weakens us; it does not make us stronger.

How easy would it be, for example, for China in a major war to recognize that it could disable Oahu simply by dropping an earth-penetrating weapon on Red Hill’s compromised tanks?

Shut Red Hill down, and invest in a safer, modern facility elsewhere. That raises another issue. Are there any other undisclosed military facilities on Oahu that pose an environmental risk? The public needs to know if toxic, hazardous, aging facilities are elsewhere on this island.

The time is now for better military, state and local government. I like what Gen. Shelton told his chiefs in the 1990s: “Guys, we have to figure out in a hurry just what it will take to fix it and get it fixed … so let’s all get together, and work together, and figure out just exactly what it will take to fix it.”


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About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.


Latest Comments (0)

This will be one to watch.  How this all unfolds will pretty much be historic in many ways.  As the article clearly points out the government's weakness in addressing problems, Red Hill is clearly now out there, like someone coming out of the closet.  Everyone knows it is an issue and now the Navy will chart a course to fixing it before more damage is done.  It's going to take a hero, someone with the guts to stand up to the world and say we messed up and now we will remedy the problem.  Notwithstanding blame are everyone of our congressional delegates, that said and did nothing prior to just a month or so ago.  They let the Navy run the show and only came out to take a position when the cat was out of the bag.  That's status quo, self preservation, political BS and the public should remember that come the next election.  It should be a call for change in government representation not the same "old" folks with the name recognition that do little for us nationally.  

wailani1961 · 11 months ago

One fact that stands out…no one is telling the truth to address the problem.  The people that are supposed to be running these programs are not taking responsibility.  And why should they…almost everyone in the public eye- tells lies or avoids the issues.  And sadly, they get away with it!   As Proverbs 6:16-19 partly reads:The Lord hates-A false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict!  Which is happening right now in our beloved State of Hawaii.

jami_maui · 11 months ago

Great article.The State deserves some blame but I think the Navy has been kicking the can down the road as long as possible.Red Hill seems like such an old, complex fuel system.  One has to wonder if there are alternatives to supply the military?

TruthSeeker · 11 months ago

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