Environmental advocates want the Green administration to demand more from the Navy.

As Hawaii’s new governor promises enhanced oversight of the Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility, environmental advocates hope that means his administration will press for faster action and increased transparency from the military.

Gov. Josh Green’s commitment in his State of the State address last week comes amid community criticism that federal regulators haven’t done enough to hold the Navy to account for contaminating the Pearl Harbor area’s drinking water in 2021, sickening some 2,000 people.

The Red Hill tanks still hold some 100 million gallons of fuel over Oahu’s primary drinking water aquifer, and emptying them could take until July 2024, according to the Navy.

“I do hope that Gov. Green’s commitments will be backed by strong actions by him and his administration and that he will, most importantly, consult with the community groups who have been fighting for years to prevent this crisis and are now dealing with an ongoing emergency,” said Wayne Tanaka, executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii.

Gov. Josh Green said Hawaii “must never again risk leaks or spills of any toxic substance into our water supply.” (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

For years, Hawaii’s politicians treaded lightly when it came to concerns about the Navy’s Red Hill fuel storage complex, even after the contamination started making people sick. One year ago, after the crisis began, then-Gov. David Ige said he wasn’t ready to call for the permanent shutdown of Red Hill and said he’d consider issuing the Navy a permit to keep operating. Ige later expressed support for Red Hill’s permanent closure but only after the Department of Defense said it planned to shut down for good.

As lieutenant governor, Green spoke with more urgency than Ige about removing the fuel from Red Hill but did not openly contradict the governor. Now that he’s in the top spot, he is speaking more forcefully on the issue.

“We must hold the U.S. Navy accountable for the environmental disaster at Red Hill and shut it down for good,” he said in his speech. “To be blunt, Hawaii must never again risk any leaks or spills of any toxic substance into our water supply.

“The current oversight of Red Hill is not strong enough,” he added.

Calling For Action

Green said his administration will approach Red Hill like the state tackled the coronavirus pandemic – with ongoing monitoring and constant communication with the public about the draining of the Red Hill tanks, the quality of Oahu’s water and the effort to permanently close the World War II-era facility. 

“The Navy needs to be 100% transparent with us and open with the public and their elected leaders, which is all of us in this room,” he said.

Environmental advocates said the words need to be followed by action, such as having the health department take bolder steps to get the Navy to defuel Red Hill more quickly and to force the military to be more transparent along the way.

“The Department of Health clearly has some influence,” environmental attorney David Kimo Frankel said.

According to Frankel, the health department also has the legal authority to prohibit the Navy’s use of PFAS, the toxic “forever chemicals” that leaked from Red Hill in November. They should use it, he said.

Representatives from Green’s office and the health department said officials were not available to share more detailed information on Green’s vision for enhanced oversight.

However, in a statement, the governor said his “transparent oversight model” will include weekly meetings with stakeholders to obtain real time updates and water quality data which will be shared with the public. 

While Green was short on specifics, he seemed to be receptive to residents’ concerns during his State of the State address.

He said that like many community members, he was not satisfied with a recent joint presentation by the Navy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month. The federal entities are entering into a voluntary oversight agreement that many feel lacks teeth and feel reminiscent of a prior agreement, signed in 2015, that failed to prevent the current crisis. 

Hundreds of people have testified in person and online on the EPA’s new proposed consent order with the Navy on Red Hill. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The Hawaii Department of Health was a party to the earlier agreement. This time though, the agency chose not to get involved, opting instead to focus on holding the Navy accountable to a state emergency order.

In his State of the State remarks, the governor also pledged that his health department will work in partnership with the Honolulu Board of Water Supply. 

Data Needed

BWS Chief Engineer Ernie Lau said he’s already felt a difference. By instructing the director and deputy director of health to meet with him regularly, Lau said Green is “opening up the lines of communication.”

Green’s approach so far is a “sharp contrast” with the prior administration, Lau said.  

“I do really appreciate the governor just directing his team to engage with us, the Board of Water Supply, on a regular basis,” he said. “I think he understands the seriousness of the situation.”

Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau speaks at a press conference discussing an AFFF leak at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.
Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau said he needs help getting Navy data. (Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2022)

There is room for improvement though, in Lau’s view. Data from the Navy’s monitoring wells should be made available to the public and to BWS in a more accessible format, he said. Currently, it is posted on the health department’s website as a pdf file. And the file itself is not sent directly from an independent lab to the health department. It first goes through the Navy, which creates a summary spreadsheet.

Lau said he asked the Navy to share its original data with BWS, but his request was denied.

“I need the regulators, both the Department of Health and the EPA, to put pressure and direct the Navy to release this information to the community and to the Board of Water Supply,” he said. “We want a format generated by the lab. Not reprocessing by the Navy.”

BWS also asked the Navy to take samples from military monitoring wells so that BWS could do its own testing. That request was initially granted and BWS allowed the Navy to test its own wells in turn, Lau said.

But before BWS could test the military wells, “they changed their mind,” he said. Lau said he may ask for DOH’s help on this matter in the future.

In a statement, a Navy spokesman said the Navy appreciated the opportunity to test BWS’ Halawa wells, and he confirmed it won’t be returning the favor.

“Like the Navy, BWS is a water purveyor and an important stakeholder,” said Mike Andrews, deputy director of Navy public affairs. “However, in order to ensure that only regulator-approved processes and methods are used, the Navy does not allow any stakeholder or water purveyor testing of our drinking water and groundwater monitoring wells.”

‘It Starts At The Top’

Tanaka said Green’s administration could “raise their voice as a regulator” by joining in the advocacy against the proposed EPA consent agreement with the Navy. Community groups have called for hard deadlines, harsher penalties for non-compliance and more opportunities for public scrutiny, among other changes.

“I hope he stays true to his word that he will be ensuring a much greater level of accountability regarding the impacts we’ve seen and may be at risk for going forwards,” he said.

Overall, leaders set the tone for their organizations, Lau said, and he’s hopeful BWS can work together with this administration on common goals.

“It starts at the top,” Lau said. “With Gov. Green, who seems very supportive and wanting to work with us for the good of our community, that’s a positive.”

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