At Kahoolawe, Makua Valley, Pohakuloa and elsewhere, activists defending the interests of Hawaiians and the environment have protested the U.S. military for decades. 

They’ve opposed the occupation of Hawaii’s land, the destruction of sacred cultural sites and the disruption of daily life, from low-flying helicopters to inflated housing costs

But until recently, broad sectors of the community and the state’s political powers have uncritically supported the military. The Department of Defense – driving the second-largest sector of the state’s economy – has been allowed to expand its footprint largely unimpeded. 

That could be changing, in large part due to widespread outrage over the Navy’s recent water contamination crisis, community members and elected officials say.

Oahu Water protectors staged a rally at the Capitol in opposition to the Red Hill fuel tanks. December 10, 2021
The Oahu Water Protectors staged a rally at the Capitol in opposition to the Red Hill fuel tanks in December. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The Navy’s water supply for some 93,000 people in the Pearl Harbor area was contaminated last year by a fuel leak from the World War II-era Red Hill storage facility, which is composed of 20 huge tanks and a system of aging pipelines. Thousands of families were sickened and uprooted from their homes for months after discovering their tap water smelled like fuel.

Now, there is a growing sentiment that it’s time to renegotiate the terms of the Hawaii-military relationship, and the military may not get everything it wants. 

“This has just created a very wide opening to question the role of the military in Hawaii, its impacts on health, well-being and livelihoods,” said Laurel Mei-Singh, a former University of Hawaii professor who has researched Hawaii-military relations.

“This Red Hill case is a really important opportunity for dialogue about how much does Hawaii need the military? What are the costs and the benefits of the military? How does the military both feed and poison us?”   

There are varying ideas about where such a reckoning should lead. Community member demands range from increased public engagement to the reduction or removal of the military from the Hawaiian islands. 

Kainoa Azama is a Native Hawaiian, a student at the University of Hawaii, chair of the Honolulu Youth Commission and an advocate for the demilitarization of Hawaii.
Kainoa Azama, wearing a shirt depicting Hawaiian sovereignty activist Haunani-Kay Trask, said the Red Hill crisis is one of many reasons that the military should leave the islands. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat 2022

“If we allow them to poison our water, what precedent does that set for our islands?” asked Kainoa Azama, a Native Hawaiian student at the University of Hawaii who seeks the ouster of the military and restoration of Hawaiian sovereignty. 

The military has long had a complicated relationship with Hawaii. It played a decisive role in overthrowing the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 and since then has occupied lands forcibly taken from the Hawaiian people.

‘Red Hill Changed Everything’

It is one of Hawaii’s main employers, with more than 70,000 defense personnel working in the islands and draws recruits from local families. The military also injects some $7.7 billion into the state, or 8.5% of the state’s GDP, according to a defense department report.

Military spending helped offset the economic woes suffered when the coronavirus pandemic caused tourism to shut down.

The defense department has long argued that Hawaii is the center of its operations in the Pacific, giving the bases here strategic importance with the Biden administration’s focus on fighting China for influence in the region. It has long rebuffed criticism of its operations by citing national security needs.

“This has just created a very wide opening to question the role of the military in Hawaii.” — Laurel Mei-Singh

Few people expect the military to be ousted from the islands, but there are calls to demand it reduce its footprint or at least pay more to offset the impacts of its presence. And anger over the contamination crisis is coinciding with the expiration of the military’s state land leases in 2029.  Those deals gave the military access to thousands of acres of Hawaii land for 65 years for just $1 apiece.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said the military owes Hawaii “an actual negotiation – which means that the Department of Defense is going to have to make some concessions.”

“Red Hill changed everything,” the Hawaii Democrat said in an interview. 

“It wasn’t just people who were ideologically against the presence of the Department of Defense, but regular folks – even people in the military or who consider themselves pro-military – who said to themselves: Are we being mistreated? Are we being taken for granted? Or, are we being treated like a colony?” 

While visions for the way forward differ, many interviewed by Civil Beat said that the military hasn’t respected its host community.

“Some over there thought that the fuel was more important than the people of Hawaii. They need to change that mindset,” said Honolulu City Councilwoman Esther Kiaaina, who comes from a Hawaiian family with a history of military service. 

“The aloha, the spirit, has to be bilateral. If you don’t have that mutual respect and mutual aloha, then you have an unhealthy relationship.”

Senator Brian Schatz,
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said the military should engage in a sincere negotiation with Hawaii over its state land leases. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Civil Beat requested interviews with Navy Rear Adm. Tim Kott, commander of Navy Region Hawaii, and a representative of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Both requests were denied. 

Instead, Navy Capt. Kyle Raines, a spokesman for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said that moving forward, local concerns and consultations with the community “must guide our dialogue and actions.” 

“The mission of the U.S. military is to provide for our national defense,” he said in an email. “In the execution of that mission we must be good stewards of the resources we’ve been provided. There is only one way forward in achieving this mission for the state and the military, and that is together.”

“We are eager to collaborate and build relationships, enabling us to be part of the solution as we partner with our community,” he wrote.

‘It Woke People Up’

The military has a long history of pollution and environmental degradation in Hawaii.

Pearl Harbor, once a pristine area for fishing and diving, is so severely contaminated that it’s an EPA-designated Superfund site.

The U.S. military used Kahoolawe for target practice for years. U.S. Navy

Waikane Valley on Oahu’s Windward side and Makua Valley on the West Side are both littered with unexploded ordnances after being used as military training areas. 

Kahoolawe, the island sacred to Native Hawaiians that was bombed for target practice by the military, was returned to the state after Native Hawaiian protests. But it still isn’t entirely cleaned up.

The military also dumps hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals – nitrate compounds often found in waste – off the coasts of the Hawaiian islands every year, federal data shows.

When the fuel leaked into the aquifer 100 feet below last year, many local people saw it as a continuation of that legacy.

“This is a long, historical pattern,” said Kyle Kajihiro, a University of Hawaii lecturer and longtime demilitarization activist. “Red Hill is not an isolated case.” 

Hawaiians and other locals have protested the military’s environmental impacts for decades, but their messages were often ignored, according to Ann Wright, a retired Army colonel, former diplomat and anti-war activist. 

“And because of the influence of the military in terms of its economic power and political power, their voices have not really resonated much, and certainly haven’t resonated at all with our congressional delegation and our state-level government.” 

The Red Hill water contamination crisis transcended the usual division between the military and local activists, Kiaaina said. 

“It woke people up,” she said. “No longer is it only a Hawaiian issue, an environmental issue. It is a people of Hawaii issue. And it impacted something dear to them. That’s drinking water.”

“Now, all of a sudden, they’re thinking: Oh my god, the quality of life for me and my family, my children, our grandchildren, are impacted. And we have to do everything possible to fight it,” she added.

Honolulu City Council member Esther Kiaaina.
City Councilwoman Esther Kiaaina wrote to President Joe Biden in January saying that Hawaii’s support of the U.S. military in the islands is “not unconditional.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Military families and children were the people predominantly impacted by the Red Hill water crisis. But the civilian population was affected as well as Hawaii’s most populous island was deprived of the Halawa shaft, once one of the area’s primary water sources. 

Residents are under an advisory to reduce water usage by 10% while the Honolulu Board of Water Supply scrambles to drill new wells away from the contamination. The looming threat of construction moratoriums means an important sector of the island’s economy is on the line. 

This time, the whole community rose up, including elected officials from all levels of government. 

“We saw politicians who were fighting us change their tune and start criticizing the military and calling for investigations and shutting down the tanks,” Kajihiro said.

After years of insisting the Red Hill fuel facility was a vital national security asset, the Department of Defense caved in the face of unprecedented political and community consensus demanding the facility’s closure.

Rear Admiral Timothy Kott commander of Navy Region Hawaii
The military’s credibility in Hawaii has taken a hit. Pictured: Rear Adm. Tim Kott, commander of Navy Region Hawaii. Courtesy: U.S. Navy/2021

In March, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the DOD would shut it down.

It was a remarkable announcement – and it has yet to be carried out – but much damage had already been done, to the sick families and also the military’s own credibility. 

Pronouncements that the military needs something simply because of “national security” will now be met with increased skepticism, Kiaaina said. 

“No longer can DOD use the excuse of ‘national defense,’” Kiaaina said. “Their inaction to resolve it was jeopardizing national defense.” 

The community also took notice of military officials’ initial response to the contamination, which was to insist the water was fine, and when contamination was confirmed, to deny it was really a crisis.

‘You Are A Guest Here’

Activists like Kajihiro are hoping to parlay the residual energy and political capital from Red Hill into other efforts to reduce the military’s footprint in Hawaii, such as canceling RIMPAC. The international gathering for military training involves the sinking of ships and use of sonar, which has attracted criticism of its environmental impact for years.

“I hope that people will sustain their skepticism and critical thinking about the military presence,” Kajihiro said. 

Another major focus is the military’s state land leases, which are set to expire in 2029.

That includes 23,000 acres at the Pohakuloa Training Area on Hawaii island and 6,300 acres on Oahu at the Kawailoa/Poamoho Training Area, Kahuku Training Area and Makua Military Reservation

The military wants to continue using Pohakuloa on Hawaii island. Community members have other ideas. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

According to the state, the military wants to extend its leases. 

“The facilities and training areas in Hawaii are invaluable to the readiness and posture of our U.S. military forces,” Raines said. 

In the wake of the Red Hill crisis, though, community members see a window of opportunity to let those leases expire, or at least renegotiate them.

“We should start cleaning up now so that when 2029 comes around, the land will be safe and we can actually plan alternative uses,” Kajihiro said. 

And it doesn’t have to come at the expense of military preparedness, according to Wright. There is technology the military can use to do training simulations that don’t involve actually bombing the land, she said. 

The Hawaii House of Representatives this year passed a resolution asking the Department of Land and Natural Resources to hold public forums for residents and the military to discuss the future of those leases. But DLNR has no intention of doing so, according to agency spokesman Dan Dennison. 

That position runs counter to the will of the community, said Hawaii Rep. Sonny Ganaden, who introduced the resolution. 

“We’re afraid of a rubber stamp on a once in a lifetime ability to reframe the relationship between the military and the state,” he said. 

DLNR officials declined to be interviewed for this story. In an email, Dennison said the Army already has started the environmental impact statement process for Pohakuloa, and residents will have “more than ample opportunity for public comment” on all the leases. 

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Suzy Vares-Lum, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command mobilization assistant to the commander, speaks during Pacific Air Forces’ first Women’s, Peace, and Security (WPS) symposium, hosted from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, March 31, 2021. Vares-Lum provided remarks about operationalizing WPS in the defense sector. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Nick Wilson)
Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Suzy Vares-Lum said there is room for improvement when it comes to communication between the military and island residents. Courtesy: Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs/2021

Suzy Vares-Lum, the president of the East-West Center and former major general in the Army, said the community and the military need more open lines of communication. 

“While there are wonderful ways in which there’s public scoping, where the public can respond to environmental impact statements or assessments, they can testify and give comments, it’s really not the same as actually talking to one another on a continuous basis, building a relationship so that you can address potential issues before they become issues,” she said. 

As a show of good faith, the military could offer to return state lands that it now only uses for recreation, like the Bellows Air Force campgrounds or Fort DeRussey park, Kiaaina said. 

“They should look at their inventory, and determine what they don’t need,” she said. 

And to help mend broken ties, the military should hire a full-time staff member to be a community liaison, Kiaaina said, not only for Hawaii but for other Pacific islands where the military has a presence. That person should have a strong understanding of Hawaiian history and why the military’s presence can stir up strong emotions, she said. 

Overall, Schatz said, the military needs an attitude adjustment. 

“It starts with respect. It starts with understanding that you are a guest here,” he said. “Just the principle of not treating us like just a strategic basing location but rather the 50th state.”

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