The Navy’s water contamination crisis has impacted nearly 100,000 Oahu residents and is a “humanitarian and environmental disaster” that puts the larger community in imminent peril, according to a Hawaii Department of Health hearing officer.

But last week, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi had little to say about it.

“I’m not at the table for those discussions right now,” he said at a press conference. “So I have chosen not to comment on the Red Hill matter.”

Mayor Rick Blangiardi answers media questions about Oahu’s move to Tier 4.
Mayor Rick Blangiardi says he has chosen not to comment on the Red Hill fuel leak crisis. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The mayor praised Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau, who has protested the Navy’s fuel operations for years and has been leading calls to decommission the Red Hill fuel facility. But the mayor made clear he has no intention of personally getting involved in the matter.

Blangiardi’s lack of engagement left some community members confused and disappointed.

I’m pretty dumbfounded, to be honest,” said Kamanamaikalani Beamer, a University of Hawaii professor who has advocated for the shutdown of the Red Hill fuel facility. “Personally, I would hope for a little more courageous leadership from the mayor to really support fresh, clean water on Oahu. It’s puzzling.”

Colin Moore, director of the UH Public Policy Center, said the mayor may be trying to be judicious and give the Navy the benefit of the doubt to signal that the city can be a partner in solving the problem. But if that’s the case, he said, it fell flat.

“People want to hear their mayor defend their needs pretty vigorously, and I don’t think it would hurt for the Navy to feel some political pressure,” Moore said. “The Navy doesn’t need any help. They can defend themselves.” 

In an interview with Civil Beat on Thursday, Blangiardi said he is concerned about the island’s drinking water but reiterated his decision not to comment.

“I have stayed out of this, alright?” he said. “There’s a lot of other things that we’re involved with. That’s exactly why. We’re in a little bit of a pandemic right now, and there are a lot of other issues that we’re dealing with.”

While he said he has been briefed on the crisis by high-level military officials and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, he said he doesn’t know enough about the issue to render an opinion.

“I’m not going to talk about something that involves national security and the city and county right now without being better informed,” he said. “This thing has been around-the-clock meetings and discussions, and I’m not that kind of person to weigh in on something I don’t have that kind of knowledge on.”

Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernie Lau speaks to media about recent water data and updates media. December 13, 2021
Blangiardi said he is “very supportive” of Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

He reiterated that he is “very supportive” of Lau, who works for a semi-autonomous agency and reports to a board that sets the agenda for water policy on the island.

The mayor said it’s “protocol” for him not to interfere with their operations, similar to his relationship with other boards to which he appoints people, like the police commission or fire commission.

“The city could not have a better advocate on its behalf,” the mayor said of Lau. “I’m not going to grandstand and get in the way of Ernie Lau.”

Although Blangiardi said he supports Lau and what he recommends, when asked directly whether he supports draining the Red Hill fuel facility permanently – which is Lau’s position – Blangiardi said he didn’t know enough about it.

On Thursday, Lau said that he appreciates the mayor’s support and noted that his position on decommissioning the tanks is “pretty clearly stated.”

Councilwoman Radiant Cordero said that the water crisis is a city issue, which is why she is sponsoring legislation that seeks to give the city permitting power over Red Hill. The mayor declined to comment on it.

“With huge numbers of people from Ewa Beach, Pearl City, to Moanalua (impacted) and also everyone else affected by the three wells shut off, I think this warrants more of a stance and more of a fight for our community,” she said.

Wayne Tanaka – the executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, which has lobbied for Red Hill’s closure for years – said he hopes the mayor’s support of Lau indicates that he will support Cordero’s legislation, Bill 48.

“Ernie Lau has said we all need to stand together united to protect our water, and I hope he will heed that call and join the council, state legislators and the state Department of Health to do everything possible to get the Navy to expeditiously defuel the facility and keep us safe,” he said.

Blangiardi’s father was a Navy veteran, and the mayor himself had dreams at one point of attending the U.S. Naval Academy, he told Nexttv in 2013. But he said he’s not biased in the military’s favor.

“I have great respect for our military, in general,” he said on Thursday. “And I have a lot of respect for the fact that they have a presence here in Hawaii and what it represents in the way of national security.”

He added that his conversations with top military officials have given him an understanding of “their sensitivity on how important” Red Hill is as a national security asset.

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