The messages, released as part of a lawsuit, also document a commander drastically underestimating the volume of the first of two spills.
Text messages exchanged between some of Hawaii’s top Navy leaders provide a behind-the-scenes look at their discussions about fuel leaks at the Red Hill storage complex that contaminated Pearl Harbor’s drinking water in 2021.
Some of the messages, entered into the federal court record on Thursday, illustrate how the inept response to a May 6, 2021, leak at the facility laid the groundwork for another in November 2021 that sickened families.
One exchange shows Capt. Gordie Meyer, the former commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Hawaii, underestimating the severity of the May leak by many thousands of gallons.
A day after the May leak, he said “initial reports are as good as could be hoped for” and it was likely only 1,000 gallons that had been released. That number was reported to the public. Later on, the Navy said the total was closer to 1,600 gallons.
“Ready to stand in front of a camera if needed, but would like to think this is not that news worthy,” Meyer wrote on May 7, 2021.
The messages are part of a lawsuit filed by families who drank and bathed in the tainted water.
Their attorney Kristina Baehr sought the text messages from Meyer, Capt. Erik Spitzer and others as part of the case. However, phones issued to Meyer and Spitzer were erased by the Navy so the phones could be reassigned to their successors. To mitigate the loss of evidence, the Navy provided copies of text threads involving Meyer and Spitzer that were captured on other leaders’ phones.
Those conversations were submitted as exhibits in a legal filing on Thursday.
Baehr, who declined to comment for this story, said in a legal brief that the existence of these conversations shows that Meyer had more Red Hill-related conversations than he previously disclosed to military investigators. The filing also accuses Spitzer of lying during a deposition, noting he was “not accurate when he testified that he did not use text messages to substantively communicate with others.”
Navy Region Hawaii declined to comment on Baehr’s allegations and did not answer questions about the content of the text messages.
“The Navy does not comment on ongoing litigation,” Navy spokesman Chris Blachly said in an email.
The Navy’s failure to account for the fuel leaked in May 2021 was identified by military investigators as a key cause of the catastrophic water contamination to come. The “missing” fuel flowed into a fire suppression drain line designed to remove used firefighting foam and water after a fire. Amid fire suppression system problems, the fuel was not pumped to an aboveground storage container and instead sat in the pipe for months.
The text messages also show Navy officials had early indications that the fuel had reached the groundwater after that May leak.
Meyer received a text from a Navy captain on June 25, 2021, stating that staff were “sounding alarm bells” about groundwater quality. Red Hill is located directly above Oahu’s primary aquifer, which provides drinking water to the southern part of the island.
“Gordie, Sheri is reporting elevated GW detection and is coming over to brief us at 1315,” the captain wrote. Sherri Eng is the environmental director for Navy Region Hawaii.
“She’s concerned,” the captain said.
Nevertheless, the Navy kept pumping Red Hill well water to people’s homes, and officials did not announce these results to the public. In fact, in October 2021, the Navy’s report on the incident stated no increase in fuel was detected in groundwater monitoring wells near the facility.
The test results were shared with the Hawaii Department of Health. But, as Civil Beat has previously reported, the department considered the data too thin to take action. It was instead used as justification for further testing.
“DOH just called about TPH-o detects-discussed the Navy’s increased sampling and latest non-detect results,” a Navy captain texted to his colleagues on Oct. 1, 2021. “No immediate concerns. Agreed to meet on Tuesday to provide additional details.”
Some residents later said they began feeling sick around this time.
But before much additional testing could happen, the second leak occurred. On Nov. 20, 2021, a worker accidentally hit the pipeline with a cart, triggering a flood of fuel that would spew for 34 hours in a location just 300 feet away from the drinking water well.
Hundreds of people reported illnesses throughout that Thanksgiving week. The Navy said it shut down the Red Hill well on Nov. 28, but it issued no health guidance. Eventually, the Hawaii Department of Health stepped in to advise communities not to drink or use their tap water.
Messages from that time suggest top Navy leadership were intent on minimizing the scope of the problem. On Dec. 3, 2021, days after DOH’s advisory, Meyer said he wanted the state to rescind its directive, according to one of his text messages.
“We need to get with DOH as soon as possible, probably not tonight, but first thing in the AM to discuss changing their position on the drinking water in unaffected areas,” he wrote. “Hopefully with the most recent mainland testing, we can get them to reverse their position and statement that no one on the Navy system should drink the water.”
The idea that some areas were “unaffected” is questionable. The Navy distribution system is interconnected, and the contamination was found to be widespread, although some individuals seemed to be more impacted than others. Communities closest to Red Hill seem to have been impacted severely, according to a state map of complaints at the time, but water users as far as Ford Island and Kapilina Beach homes – on the far western side of Pearl Harbor – also reported serious illnesses.
The texts also touch on the Navy’s communication with other agencies.
In early 2022, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply was seeking answers from the Navy about water quality after the leaks. On Jan. 5, 2022, Meyer texted a colleague that the “intent” of an email of data sent to BWS was to “inundate them with info already publicly available or provided to DOH.”
BWS did not respond to a request for comment.
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.
A good reason not to give
We know not everyone can afford to pay for news right now, which is why we keep our journalism free for everyone to read, listen, watch and share.
But that promise wouldn’t be possible without support from loyal readers like you.
Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help keep our journalism free for all readers. And if you’re able, consider a sustaining monthly gift to support our work all year-round.