WASHINGTON — Jan. 13, 2014 was supposed to be a wake-up call.

On that day, a 27,000-gallon jet fuel leak from the Navy’s WWII-era underground storage facility at Red Hill threatened to contaminate Oahu’s aquifer, which sits just 100 feet below the tanks.

The initial reaction by state and local officials was swift.

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply shut down its wells in the area and immediately started testing for petroleum. The state Senate created a special task force to investigate what went wrong.

And by 2015 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Hawaii Department of Health had entered into a binding agreement with the Navy to find a permanent solution to a problem more than a generation in the making.

Now, nearly eight years later, officials are reacting to a crisis they should have seen coming, yet questions remain about whether they’ve done enough to prepare.

NEX Navy Exchange parking lot as military handles water distribution after fuel was found in the drinking water.
The Navy has been forced to provide bottled water to tens of thousands of people after petroleum was found in its water system. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“Sometimes it takes a crisis to break a pattern,” said Neal Milner, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii. “It should not be surprising that our politicians were willing to go along with business as usual until this crisis got out of hand. That’s a fairly typical political response.”

Dozens of people have reported falling ill after drinking water found to be contaminated with petroleum, believed to come from the Navy’s underground fuel facility, and tens of thousands are without running water as a result of the wells in the area being shut down as a precaution.

Red Hill

Hawaii’s leaders, from Gov. David Ige to all four members of the state’s congressional delegation, have taken forceful positions in recent days demanding that the Navy suspend its operations at Red Hill until the pollution is under control.

Ige in particular has ordered the Navy to come up with a plan to drain its tanks of more than 100 million gallons of fuel, although he might not have that authority.

These demands stand in stark contrast to earlier reactions concerning Red Hill, despite a long history of leakage.

“At this point I think everybody is coalescing around the same message,” said John Waihee, who was Hawaii’s governor from 1986 to 1994. “At this point it’s clear that the status quo cannot continue to exist.”

Politicians in Hawaii have long walked a fine line between demanding the removal of the tanks and ensuring the facility operates safely. Red Hill, which was built in the 1940s, has become an important strategic asset in the Indo-Pacific region, but its significance extends beyond national security.

The military is the second largest driver of Hawaii’s economy behind tourism, and organizations such as the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce have lobbied hard against any proposals that might result in the military moving elsewhere.

“They’ve been trying to thread an impossible needle here for way too long and it’s been really frustrating,” said Marti Townsend, a former director of the Sierra Club Hawaii. “This is an impossible situation because you can’t have both the Red Hill fuel tanks where they are, as they are, and have clean water for half a million people.”

Townsend has been a longtime advocate of removing the aging fuel tanks at Red Hill to protect the aquifer, but over the years she and her allies have had little success getting buy-in from the state’s top elected officials, particularly those within the federal delegation.

Too often, she said, politicians have focused on the billions of dollars the U.S. military brings into the islands each year.

In fiscal year 2020, the Department of Defense reported spending $7.7 billion in the islands on personnel and contracts. Among the branches, the Navy brought in the most money.

“Our leaders want to keep the Navy in Hawaii and, from their perspective, anything that could risk the Navy leaving, such as the removal of the Red Hill fuel tanks, means the potential for economic disaster,” Townsend said. “But what do we care more about? The military’s contribution to our economy or the complete decimation of our economy because there’s not enough water to drink.”

Governor David Ige walks into ceremonial room to announce the Hawaii Smart Health Card going live this friday.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige has taken a forceful position after the Navy is believed to have contaminated drinking water on Oahu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The Hawaii Chamber of Commerce created the Military Affairs Council, or MAC, in 1985 to advocate on behalf of the defense industry and help local businesses take advantage of the flood of federal dollars flowing into the islands.

Federal records show that after the 2014 fuel leak at Red Hill, the MAC — which is made up of local business leaders and retired military officials — hired a lobbying firm in Washington to help influence how Congress spends defense dollars. Since then, the chamber has reported spending more than $600,000 on its lobbying efforts in the nation’s capital.

Chamber president and CEO, Sherry Menor-McNamara, who recently announced she will run for lieutenant governor, did not respond to Civil Beat’s request for comment.

“What’s happening right now and how the Navy and U.S. military respond to it will determine their future in Hawaii.” — U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele

The chamber has teamed up with the Navy to try to block reforms targeting the Red Hill fuel farm.

In 2018, for example, the Honolulu City Council introduced a resolution that called for EPA and the state Department of Health to reject a Navy proposal to upgrade and maintain its single-walled fuel tanks without adding a secondary barrier to prevent future leaks. Both the Navy and chamber pushed back on the proposal, with the chamber submitting written testimony urging the council to reject the resolution.

“The military’s ability to remain ‘ready to respond’ is essential for preserving the military’s presence in the State and protecting a vital driver of our State’s economy,” the chamber said.

Two years later, state Sen. Mike Gabbard introduced legislation that would effectively shut down Red Hill by 2028.

Again, the Navy fought back. So, too, did the chamber and the University of Hawaii, which receives millions of dollars in investments from the military for research.

Among those testifying in support of shutting down Red Hill was Ernie Lau, the chief engineer for the Honolulu Board of Water Supply. Lau has been sounding the alarm on Red Hill and its potential threats to the state’s freshwater supply for years, but with little effect.

Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernest Lau speaks to media about the closure of the Halawa well due to the US Navy’s fuel spill.
Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernest Lau speaks to media about the closure of the Halawa well due to the U.S. Navy’s fuel spill. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“Our drinking water aquifer is the only one of its kind and cannot be replaced,” Lau wrote in his testimony before the Agriculture and Environment Committee. “It is nature’s gift that should be guaranteed legislative protection and future generations should receive it in a condition that is equal to or better than what it is today.”

Gabbard’s bill died after Sen. Roz Baker refused to give it a hearing at her Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee. Baker did not comment on her decision to defer the measure at the time.

In an interview with Civil Beat on Wednesday, she said her main concern was that the bill would force the Navy to decommission the tanks in 2028. She said a number of Navy officials had also come to her office armed with maps and other documents that purported to prove that they planned to fix the problem on their own well before then.

“They said they were going to fix it and we took them at their word,” Baker said. “Obviously, the Navy has lied. And they’ve lied to a whole bunch of people.”

Can Hawaii Trust The Navy?

Hawaii’s federal delegation has traditionally given the Navy a wide berth when it came to addressing the Red Hill fuel tanks as long as progress was being made.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono said the Navy had entered into a legally binding agreement with the state Department of Health and the EPA and that she had been receiving assurances from top military officials that proper monitoring of the fuel tanks was ongoing.

In recent weeks, however, concerns about whether the Navy has been fully forthcoming have caused her and her colleagues to question whether they’ve been getting the full story.

Even before the latest contamination incident, Hirono and the other three members of the delegation called for the U.S. Department of Defense Inspector General to launch an investigation into the Navy’s handling of a spill into Pearl Harbor that it did not immediately disclose to state regulators.

She’s hardened her position over the past week, and has said publicly that once the Navy gets the crisis under control there need to be serious discussions about the future of the Red Hill storage facility, which could include relocating it completely. As she’s said, “all options are on the table.”

“First and foremost we have a crisis so we need to remedy that crisis,” Hirono said.

“At the same time, I have made it very clear to all of the military leaders that I talk with, whether the Army, Navy or Air Force, that it is really critical, especially in Hawaii where there are a lot of concerns about how the military operates in our islands and in our state, that they need to be very, very transparent and that they need to engage the community in whatever plans that they have.”

Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele holds a water bottle that he said contained contaminated water from Red Hill. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2021

Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele has been even more outspoken about the Navy’s handling of the petroleum-laced water on Oahu.

Kahele said he unwittingly drank some of the contaminated water the Friday after Thanksgiving while shopping at a base exchange near Red Hill. Like others who consumed the water, he said he experienced headaches afterward.

In an interview with Civil Beat, Kahele, who is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the Red Hill fuel storage facility is too important to the military to consider removing it from the islands. But he acknowledged something needs to be done to ensure that Oahu’s drinking water is safe.

He’s also grappling with what to make of the Navy’s response so far and whether he can continue to trust the institution.

“I think that’s a question that’s being put to the test right now,” Kahele said. “But it’s not a question of whether I trust the Navy. It’s a question of whether the people of Hawaii trust the Navy and if the people of Oahu trust the Navy.”

Kahele is a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Air National Guard, and he acknowledged that there are many people in the islands like him who have strong ties to the military.

That bedrock support, however, could be wearing thin, he added, at an inconvenient time for the Department of Defense.

A number of controversial decisions are on the horizon, from the renewal of land leases for training grounds at Pohakuloa and Makua, to siting a new missile defense radar to protect against foreign aggression.

“We’ve got a proud military tradition in Hawaii,” Kahele said. “But what’s happening right now and how the Navy and U.S. military respond to it will determine their future in Hawaii.”

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