As Hawaii residents unite in their desire to permanently close the Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility, Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono is standing by her decision not to support federal legislation that would do just that.

That position makes Hirono, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the lone holdout among Hawaii’s congressional delegation when it comes to the Red Hill Watershed and Aquifer Initiative Act.

Hirono reiterated on Tuesday she is counting on the Hawaii Department of Health to take action. DOH issued an emergency order in December requiring the defueling of Red Hill, but that order isn’t permanent and is being fought by the federal government.

“I’m doing it through the channels and steps that I think will actually get us there,” she told reporters. “I’m sorry, signing onto a bill to do it is not going to get us there. I am doing everything I can to get us there.”

Senator Mazie Hirono speaks to media at the NEX food court after a tour of the Red Hill fuel facility. The tour was closed to the media.
Senator Mazie Hirono spoke to the media at the Navy Exchange food court after a tour of the Red Hill fuel facility. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele, Rep. Ed Case and Sen. Brian Schatz have all supported the Red Hill WAI Act which would require the Navy to empty the fuel from its World War II-era tanks and pipelines by the end of this year and permanently close the facility. It’s a position that is supported by most Hawaii voters, according to a recent Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll.

The state order leaves open the possibility that the military could refuel its tanks in the future if it meets standards set by the state. Through a separate process, the DOH has permitting authority over the fuel facility, and Hirono has insisted DOH’s decision-making is the “fastest” way to resolve the Red Hill issue.

At the press conference, Hirono defended her stance as Mikey Inouye, an activist and filmmaker, repeatedly asked the senator to proclaim in clear terms that she supports the permanent shutdown of Red Hill.

Mikey Inouye speaks to reporter after the Senator Mazie Hirono press conference held at the NEX.
Activist and filmmaker Mikey Inouye challenged Hirono to clarify her stance on Red Hill during a press conference. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Hirono said she is “working very hard to shut down Red Hill” but wouldn’t specify whether she believes it should be a permanent shutdown.

Meanwhile, Hirono has supported $350 million that Congress budgeted to address the Red Hill crisis.

That includes $250 million for military expenses incurred related to drinking water contamination and $100 million for the Department of Defense to comply with the State of Hawaii’s emergency order to empty the Red Hill tanks.

Hirono’s office said she plans to seek additional funding to defuel the facility safely and for the Department of Defense to create a long-term plan to “meet the strategic fueling needs of the Indo-Pacific region” in next year’s National Defense Authorization Act. On Tuesday, she said even more funding will be needed for environmental cleanup efforts like soil remediation.

In a letter last week, Hirono also urged the secretary of defense to find alternative locations for military fuel storage needs. Hirono said Tuesday that her colleague, Sen. Dan Sullivan, is eager to move some of the fuel to his home state of Alaska.

“I want us to get to the point where we all agree we’re going to need to find an alternative to Red Hill being operated,” she said. “The clean water needs of a state should be paramount, I would say, and I am told they agree with that. We’re going to have to make that happen.”

Hirono said she is having meetings almost weekly with defense department officials, and they’re not exactly on board with letting go of Red Hill.

“They’re not quite where I would like them to go, but I would rather we all come together as opposed to the DOD challenging everything that the state does,” she said.

Sen. Hirono and her colleagues in Congress are asking the Department of Defense to investigate the Navy following reporting by Civil Beat.
Hirono is the chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower. U.S. Navy photo

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply, the Sierra Club of Hawaii and other community members have expressed alarm for years about the risk the Red Hill facility posed to Oahu’s drinking water.

Many pointed to a 2014 leak of 27,000 gallons of fuel from one of the Red Hill tanks as a warning sign and called for the closure of the corroding facility.

But until very recently, Hawaii’s elected officials showed little political will to demand a closure. Even in October, just weeks before the contamination came to light, Hirono said the tank facility should stay in operation with proper oversight.

On Tuesday, Hirono pointed to the regulatory framework put in place after the 2014 leak, called the Administrative Order on Consent.

“That was deemed to be the appropriate response to make sure that the water was clean,” Hirono said.

During that process, the Navy was ordered to either fortify its fuel facility or defuel by 2037, but military officials disregarded that deadline and instead promised a solution by 2045. Now that 93,000 residents have been impacted by fuel contamination in their water, many observers, including Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau, have declared the AOC a failure.

“These events have, I think, pretty much overtaken a lot of how we need to move forward,” Hirono said.

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