In late November, military families were sickened by fuel ingestion, including babies with rashes, after the tap water source for some 93,000 people in the Pearl Harbor area was contaminated.

The military initially denied any problems, then confirmed that recent leaks at the Navy’s underground Red Hill fuel storage facility were to blame and promised to clean up the mess.

It suspended operations at the World War II-era tank farm but spent months fighting efforts to close the facility altogether, fending off criticism during public hearings and arguing the state lacked the power to enforce an order to drain the fuel. Then last week, the Department of Defense reversed itself and agreed to shut it all down. 

The sudden about-face came amid unrelenting political pressure from a community that had unified around the issue in what supporters are calling a testament to people power. 

Oahu Water Protectors gathered at the Capitol, calling for the shutdown of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. December 10, 2021
Protesters waved signs for weeks after the Navy contaminated its own water supply with fuel. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“I’ve never in my lifetime in Hawaii – and I’m a pretty old guy – seen something like that get galvanized so quickly,” said Ernie Lau, the chief engineer of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply.

More than 70 organizations joined forces last year with the aim of closing Red Hill. Facing that public pressure, Hawaii lawmakers and the congressional delegation, who had been mum on the issue for years, started advocating for a shutdown.

Some groups, like the Sierra Club of Hawaii, have been in the fight for years. Others, like the Oahu Water Protectors, are new grassroots organizations that used the power of social media to bring attention to the cause. Military families who were directly impacted by the contamination joined local advocates in their efforts. 

And Hawaiian organizations spread a message of aloha aina. 

They were the glue that brought all of the stakeholders together to really unify in this moment of advocacy,” said Kalehua Krug, a member of the newly formed coalition Kaohewai.

For Hawaiians, the contamination of Oahu’s primary aquifer was personal because the elements of nature are considered family members in their culture, Krug said. “For me, there is nothing worse that can be done to us beyond attacking our ability to survive in our home.” 

Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, also known as Kumu Hina, led community members in protest against the Red Hill fuel leaks in December. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Community members mobilized by reaching out to residences and businesses, pleading with elected officials, waving signs at protests, distributing pamphlets and writing letters to the editor.

By early February, there was broad consensus among voters and all levels of government

Hawaii’s Deputy Director of Environmental Health Kathleen Ho, who issued an emergency defueling order to the Navy in December, compared the Red Hill fiasco to Kahoolawe, the Hawaiian island the military bombed as target practice until it was returned to the state in 1994 following decades of protest. 

“Kahoolawe was a product of people really getting their voices heard,” said Ho, who helped negotiate the environmental remediation of Kahoolawe as a young attorney representing the state. “And in this instance, our voices were heard, and they are defueling and decommissioning.”

‘Every Pint Good To Drink’

The Red Hill facility – made up of 20 massive tanks, a system of pipelines and miles of tunnels – was built in the 1940s. The entire system can hold up to 250 million gallons of fuel and sits just 100 feet above an Oahu aquifer that is the island’s primary source of drinking water.

Despite that threat, the activism around Red Hill is a relatively recent development. 

The team who built it knew there was water under the facility, according to “Builders for Battle: How the Pacific Naval Air Bases Were Constructed,” a book published in 1946 that chronicled Red Hill’s construction.

This 1942 Navy photo shows miners building one of the 20 Red Hill fuel tanks. Courtesy: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The author, David Woodbury, described his tour of the tanks as they were being built, including the moment engineer Charlie Boerner showed him the water source. 

“Salt water?” Woodbury asked. 

“No. Fresh. Every pint good to drink,” Boerner replied. 

If there were concerns about the facility’s condition or its danger to the environment in the first few decades of its existence, they weren’t voiced publicly, according to a review of news coverage of the facility. 

That changed in 1978 when U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii said the tanks needed a nearly $20 million renovation. 

“The deteriorated condition of the storage tanks threatens to pollute Red Hill’s underground water reservoir, which provides 25 million gallons of fresh water every day to Pearl Harbor and the surrounding area,” he said, according to a story in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. 

It wasn’t front-page news. It was a brief item buried in the back pages of the paper.

The issue wouldn’t be raised in the news again until 15 years later at which time the Hawaii Department of Health said it wasn’t worried about the Red Hill tanks. 

Bruce Anderson, then the state’s deputy director of environmental health, said the Red Hill tanks do “pose a potential threat to Oahu’s drinking water, but the Navy has a fairly elaborate monitoring system that should adequately detect leaks before they become a problem,” the Honolulu Advertiser reported. 

Two years later, Red Hill became a national engineering landmark, a designation shared with the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge. 

‘A Spark Was Lit’

Many community members weren’t even aware the tanks existed and definitely didn’t realize the proximity to the drinking water aquifer until 2014, when an estimated 27,000 gallons of fuel leaked from one of the tanks. 

Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernie Lau updates media and asked the metro Honolulu water customers to reduce 10% in preparation for a possible dry summer.
Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernie Lau has been steadfast in his advocacy against the Red Hill facility. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“It was the 2014 spill that really woke up a lot of people, and it was the first time that we saw information about the tanks really,” said Kyle Kajihiro, a longtime demilitarization activist and University of Hawaii instructor.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2014 spill, Lau recalled speaking at a legislative hearing during which he felt that military and health officials were “downplaying” the severity of the situation. 

“I made a decision at that point, that I’m just going to say what I think: This is a disaster waiting to happen,” he said.

Marti Townsend, who rallied against Red Hill for years as executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, said it seemed obvious to her back then that the facility should be closed.

“We don’t have to do that much work on this because any reasonable person can see that these tanks have to go,” she thought at the time. The “foot-dragging” that followed was disappointing, Townsend said. 

Bills at the Legislature to address the issue stalled. A Fuel Tank Advisory Committee was formed, but it had no teeth. The Navy, the state health department and the Environmental Protection Agency reached a voluntary agreement, but it was highly technical and not aimed at defueling the facility.

Capt. Eric Morgan, Commanding Officer of Naval Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP) Fleet Logistics Center (FLC) Pearl Harbor, briefed Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility during a September 2018 visit.
Military officials have said for years that Red Hill was a “vital national security asset.” Today, the defense department says there are better ways to store fuel. U.S. Navy

At the time, the DOH wasn’t regulating Red Hill. While other underground storage tanks fell under the department’s permitting authority, “field constructed” tanks like those at Red Hill were exempt. That meant the Navy didn’t have to share information with DOH or submit to inspections. 

Back then, DOH was following the lead of the EPA, which itself did not regulate field constructed tanks, according to Ho. 

In 2017, the Sierra Club won a lawsuit to force the DOH to regulate Red Hill. The Sierra Club later sued a second time to stop DOH from automatically granting a permit to Red Hill. Again, it won. 

In the meantime, the Board of Water Supply was trying to bring attention to the threat to the drinking water, Lau said. BWS personnel sent mailers to their customers, held public meetings, talked to neighborhood boards and made documents on Red Hill available on the BWS website. 

Despite those efforts, the military argued that it needed the storage facility, which provided fuel for the ships and warplanes of the Pacific Fleet, among others, to maintain national security. 

“We were hitting a brick wall all the time,” Lau said. “But we kept going … I was fearful it might take a disaster, a catastrophic event to get people to wake up.” 

Unfortunately, that’s what happened. 

The weekend after Thanksgiving, families living near Pearl Harbor started to complain of illnesses and a fuel smell in their water. Leaks at Red Hill the prior week and in May were to blame, according to the Navy. 

Suddenly, what had seemed hypothetical, academic or even alarmist for the last eight years was reality, Lau said. 

“The importance of our water resources became very real,” Lau said. “It was like a spark was lit and it took off.”

The Sierra Club, by then led by new director Wayne Tanaka, prioritized outreach to other groups to bolster advocacy efforts, forming a Shut Down Red Hill Coalition with the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement; Aina Aloha Economic Futures; Kanaeokana, a network of Hawaiian culture schools; the conservation nonprofit Wai Ola Alliance and others.

Gina Hara, a Halawa resident who has attended nearly every public meeting on Red Hill for years and is now a member of the Oahu Water Protectors, said involving different groups was crucial. 

“Everyone had a variety of backgrounds,” she said. “It’s overwhelming by yourself. Now, not a day goes by that we’re not talking about what to do.” 

By February, the collective created a Red Hill pledge urging legislators to proclaim their support for legislation to shut down Red Hill. 

Army veteran and former diplomat Ann Wright launched a daily newsletter to keep supporters informed of new developments.

Oahu Water Protector gathered at the Capitol to stage a die-in calling for the shutdown of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.
Oahu Water Protectors staged a symbolic “die-in” at the Capitol to call for the shutdown of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The Oahu Water Protectors amassed tens of thousands of social media followers on Twitter and Instagram, posting timely updates and short documentary-style films made by local filmmaker Mikey Inouye. 

The group was formed by volunteers from Hawaii Peace and Justice, including Kajihiro and Wright, and other organizations, and expenses were paid out of pocket by the volunteers and member organizations, Inouye said.

On March 7, the Pentagon announced that it would drain and permanently shut down the Red Hill fuel facility. 

Calling it “the right thing to do,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said it makes more sense for the military to store its fuel in a less centralized way – a reversal of years of military arguments about Red Hill’s strategic advantages. 

He also said it’s important for U.S. military bases to be good stewards of the land. 

In an apparent nod to the community’s sustained protests, he also pledged to involve residents in the decision-making on Red Hill’s future.

“When we begin to consider land-use options for the property after the fueling facility is closed, we will stay in lockstep with communities in Hawaii,” he said. “Nothing will be decided without careful and thorough consultation with our partners.”

The defense secretary called for a defueling plan to be on his desk by May 31 – months past the health department’s original deadline. Once that is submitted and approved by DOH, repairs must be done before the facility can be drained, a process the DOD said could take 12 months.

Activists say they will maintain pressure until the process is complete. The Navy also still hasn’t released the report on its investigation into the cause of the contamination. 

“It was regular people, community organizers, kanaka maoli, aloha aina who made this happen,” Inouye said. “It was the result of concerted, organized, persistent pressure from the community.”

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