Lee Cataluna: The Navy's Arguments Against Shutting Down Red Hill Are Familiar - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Opinion article badgeThe Navy’s indefensible defense of its huge, leaky old fuel tanks buried in Red Hill has been that the state and local officials can’t tell it what to do, and that, regardless of actual damage and potential risk, it needs Red Hill for national security. Besides, the leak wasn’t much of a leak. Merely a spill. Nothing to see here, folks.

The appeals filed this week by the U.S. Justice Department and the statements made over the last two months by the Navy are shocking, but they shouldn’t be.

Hawaii has heard this all before.

The same arguments were used to justify the Navy’s bombing of Kahoolawe for decades.

But take heart: Though it took years of struggle by stalwart defenders of the aina, the Navy eventually returned control of the island to the state and spent years working to clean up the mess it had made.

The U.S. military started using the small island for bombing practice in 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Similarly, the Red Hill fuel storage facility was built during World War II, and though construction was started before the Pearl Harbor attack, that event made the project all the more significant. (Of course, there’s nothing secret about the storage tanks hidden under a mountain now. Any third grader can Google the location on a Chromebook.)

In 1953, Kahoolawe was transferred to the Navy with the provision that it be returned in a condition suitable for habitation when no longer needed by the military. Bombs dropped on that island seven miles off the coast of Maui until 1990, even after the entire island was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, even after 544 archeological sites were identified on the island.

Every branch of the military used that island for target practice. During Rim of the Pacific war games, other countries’ armed forces were invited to bomb the hell out of Kahoolawe, too.

Red Hill well pipe will pump up to 5 million gallons of contaminated water to 8 tanks that contain granulated carbon to filter the contaminants and then be discharged into the Halawa Stream.
The Navy’s water contamination crisis has left military families sickened and displaced. The military is working to clean up the jet fuel that leaked into its Red Hill well. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Through the 1970s, resistance to the desecration of an entire island rose up from a group of Hawaii citizens who formed the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana. By the 1980s, the Protect Kahoolawe movement had grown in influence and the Navy was having to make concessions, limiting bombing to ONLY 15 days a month and allowing commercial and sport fishing in the surrounding waters for 10 days a month.

In May 1982, after the heavily criticized RIMPAC exercises in which marine forces from the U.S., Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand bombed the island for practice, the Navy took local reporters on a tour of Kahoolawe to prove how careful the bombing had been.


The headline in the May 13, 1982 edition of the Hawaii Tribune Herald read:

“Navy: No damage to Kahoolawe”

The article went on to quote a Navy archaeologist who said he was surprised that so little had been destroyed on the island, not just during RIMPAC, but over the years of target practice. He went as far as to say that the impact of the military on archaeological sites is “virtually zero” and what damage did occur happened before the military got there.

According to the Navy’s spin, the erosion on the island was purely from the goat population, the island was barren to begin with and the bombs were so accurate that they missed everything of importance. Nothing to see here, folks.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The thing about Red Hill is that, despite the spin statements and legal arguments, people can actually taste the truth. It tastes like jet fuel.

The Navy seems less like American heroes and more like the stereotype of corporate greed, saying the Red Hill fuel facility is too costly to replace and too essential to America’s safety. The Navy said that about Kahoolawe, too.

The Protect Kahoolawe Ohana persisted through so much and eventually won the return of Kahoolawe to the state, and a yearslong clean-up and replanting effort. That island will never be the same, but that is not to say that stopping the bombing wasn’t worth the massive effort or that it was a lost cause. Life persists on Kahoolawe. Spirit endures. And the steadfastness of that island and the people who made the American military finally do the right thing is an inspiration to those fighting the Navy for safe drinking water for all of Oahu today.

A big difference is that this time, the state is fighting alongside groups who want to protect Oahu’s water aquifer and all who drink from it.

“This appeal proves undeniably the Navy is unwilling to do what’s right to protect the people of Hawaiʻi and its own service members,” said Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathleen Ho, sounding more like Walter Ritte or Frenchy DeSoto than a Department of Health administrator. “Despite the Navy claiming time and again that it would comply with the DOH emergency order, its actions consistently prove otherwise.”

Read this next:

Danny De Gracia: How The Legislature Kills Bills In Silence Without Even A Vote

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About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Latest Comments (0)

Ah, the memories this brings back. The booms. The dishes in the kitchen cabinets rattling against each other when bombs exploded. The jalousie window slats flexing so much they'd hit the adjacent slats. The dust plumes visible from Honoapi'ilani Highway. The explosions would shake houses in Lahaina, and rattle dishes in Kahului.And yes, they were very precise in dropping bombs, so precise that they once dropped a bomb on Elmer Cravalho's property. On Maui.

Rob · 1 year ago

"Tears would come from each others eyesAs they would stop to realizeThat our people are in great great danger nowHow, would they feelCould their smiles be content, then cryCry for the gods, cry for the peopleCry for the land that was taken awayAnd then yet you'll find, Hawai'i"Hawaii '78 - Hawaii 2022

surferx808 · 1 year ago

This statement really nails it. They’re acting like just another greedy, corrupt, self-serving and arrogant overlord.

Chillax · 1 year ago

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