The Honolulu Board of Water Supply’s manager and chief engineer said on Tuesday that if the Navy refuses to drain its Red Hill fuel facility, the water utility is prepared to fight to protect the aquifer underneath it.

Ernie Lau, whose longtime warnings about the fuel facility’s threat to drinking water were realized this year, said at a press conference that the Navy should follow an order from the Hawaii Department of Health to empty its fuel tanks.

“The Board of Water Supply will not give up,” Lau said. “We are in this for the long haul. We’ve been in this for eight years. We will not stop. I’m not trying to threaten the Navy, but understand that you are going to need to deal with us, whether you like it or not.”

Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernie Lau updates media on water report. December 28, 2021
Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernie Lau said the health department needs to hold the Navy’s feet to the fire. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The Navy has until Wednesday to file objections to a proposed order by Deputy Attorney General David Day. On Monday, Day’s report called the Navy’s contamination of its own drinking water a “humanitarian and environmental disaster” and said the facility is a “ticking timebomb located 100 feet above the most important aquifer on Hawaii’s most populous island.”

Fuel contamination in the Navy’s water system has impacted 93,000 military water customers, thousands of whom have sought medical treatment for issues including rashes, sores, aches and vomiting. Residents reported feeling ill and noticing a fuel odor in their water around Thanksgiving. Since then, thousands of residents have relocated to hotels and the Navy is working on remediating the contamination and investigating the cause.

Red Hill

The Navy declined to comment on the proposed order on Monday and did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. The military has previously argued that Red Hill is a vital national security asset and that with upgrades, it can operate in a way that protects human health and the environment.

To become official, Day’s recommendation would need to be affirmed by Deputy Director of Health Marian Tsuji, who has up to 30 days to render a final decision, the DOH said on Monday.

The DOH order leaves open the possibility that the Navy could fill up the tanks again and resume fueling operations at Red Hill once it addresses safety concerns.

About 6 demonstrators hold signs along Punchbowl street.
Protestors are demanding the permanent shutdown of Red Hill. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

But Lau said he disagreed with that part of the order and said that the fuel should be entirely relocated away from the aquifer permanently. If the Navy is allowed to continue operations at Red Hill, he said it’s imperative that it “double wall” not only the 80-year-old tanks but the pipelines that deliver fuel to Pearl Harbor as well.

The Navy has been subject to an Administrative Order on Consent, or AOC, since 2014 after 27,000 gallons leaked from one of the Red Hill tanks. Through that process, overseen by the DOH and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Navy pledged in 2019 to invent a “double wall containment” solution – which doesn’t currently exist – or empty the tanks by 2045.

Lau said it is clear that the AOC process has failed to prevent a disaster and that he hopes the health department will now “hold the Navy’s feet to the fire.”

“By this effort of working together, we can move this mountain. We can take on this Goliath,” Lau said.

Also on Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Josh Green released a statement supporting the health department’s order. He noted that an assessment by a Navy contractor estimated an approximately 80% chance of another fuel release between 1,000 and 30,000 gallons within the next five years.

“While I recognize the importance of the facility to the U.S. Navy, the risk of further leaks and spills is simply too great. We must prioritize the health and well-being of our residents and our environment,” he said. “The tanks at Red Hill must be drained and the fuel moved above ground and stored securely.”

The Oahu Water Protectors, a group of activists that have been advocating for the shutdown of Red Hill, also applauded Day’s recommendation on Tuesday, noting that it “echoes the dire warnings voiced by concerned community members for decades.”  The activists said that if Red Hill closes, they hope it is the first step in a larger effort to demilitarize Hawaii and the Pacific.

“We simply do not have time for the Navy’s games,” the group said. “We are not willing to sacrifice our water for war.”

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