Crisis at Kapūkakī

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Dire Risk of Oʻahu Aquifer Contamination from Red Hill Fuel Storage Facility

Hundreds of Native Hawaiians, environmentalists, and other concerned residents gathered at the Hawaiʻi State Capitol on Dec. 10, 2021, to protest the U.S. Navy’s failure to address the fuel leaking from its massive underground Fuel Storage Facility at Kapūkakī (Red Hill). The facility is positioned just 100 feet above a major aquifer that supplies drinking water to more than 400,000 Oʻahu residents. The protest included a 7-minute “die-in” (top left) during which Jamaica Osorio quietly sang “Aloha ʻOe.” – Photos: Jason Lees

On Dec. 6, 2021, the Department of Health issued an emergency order for the U.S. Navy to immediately suspend operations at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility that sits a mere 100 feet above the Moanalua-Waimalu aquifer that supplies more than 40% of Oʻahu residents with drinking water. The order also directs the Navy to treat the contaminated drinking water and safely remove all fuel from the 20 underground storage tanks.

In the wake of the U.S. Navy’s refusal to shut down its fuel storage facility despite an emergency order issued by the Hawai’i State Department of Health and the urging of state leadership, a coalition of Native Hawaiian organizations has formed. Called Kaʻohewai, they are kiaʻi rising in defense of Kapūkakī and the wellbeing of our ʻāina and wai. On Dec. 12, 2021, members of Kaʻohewai gathered at dawn at the entrance to the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander to build and dedicate a koʻa (shrine) to call upon our akua, ʻaumakua and kūpuna to help restore life and health to Kapūkakī. – Photos: Kanaeokana

The Navy suspended use of the fuel tanks on Nov. 27, 2021, but has not committed to the suspension as being a permanent solution. On Dec. 2, 2021, the Navy admitted that they detected petroleum products in water samples taken from the Red Hill well, contaminating the drinking water supply of over 92,000 residents.

On Dec. 13, 2021, the Sierra Club, represented by environmental legal firm Earthjustice, filed a motion to intervene in proceedings related to the State of Hawaiʻi Department of Heath’s December 6 emergency order. The Sierra Club is seeking to participate in the proceedings related to the emergency order to ensure that the Navy is finally held accountable for contaminating Oʻahu’s drinking water supply and to secure the orderly defueling and permanent closure of the Red Hill Facility.

Once the news broke about the leak at the Kapūkakī (Red Hill) military fuel storage facility and the contamination of drinking water in the Red Hill well, a rally was quickly organized on December 3 to protest the Navy’s failure to protect our precious water resources and shut down its facility. The photo on the left includes CNHA and Sierra Club representatives. (l-r) Mehanaokalā Hind (CNHA), Jocelyn Doane, Kumu Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Kūhiō Lewis (CNHA), and Wayne Tanaka (Sierra Club). – Photos: Jason Lees

“While we welcome the Department of Health’s emergency order to shut down Red Hill, the agency has failed to stand up to the Navy in the past and protect Oʻahu’s drinking water. With the island’s aquifer at stake and our drinking water on the line, it’s clear the Navy must defuel and shut down the Red Hill Facility now, before more residents get sick,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. “We seek to intervene to ensure that the Department of Health does not, once again, let the Navy off the hook with half-measures that have proved inadequate to protect the health and safety of Oʻahu’s people.”

On Dec. 15, 2021, the Honolulu City County held a special hearing to discuss Bill 48 and Resolution 21-276 and hundreds of people testified in favor of closing the fuel storage facility. Bill 48 will require underground storage tanks over 100,000 gallons to be permitted only if the tank or tank system is guaranteed not to leak. Resolution 21-276 urges the permanent removal and relocation of the Red Hill storage tanks. Both the bill and the resolution passed, with the Board of Water Supply responsible for the enforcement of Bill 48. The amended resolution will go to President Biden and to the state water commission.

To help the community stay up-to-date on this critical issue, the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi has put together a Red Hill Water Contamination Live Updates page. Go to: sierraclubhawaii.org/rh-live-updates.

He Mau Moʻolelo o Kapūkakī

Kapūkakī is the true name for the area now known as “Red Hill.” It is located in the ahupuaʻa of Moanalua on the border shared with the ahupuaʻa of Hālawa and the moku of ʻEwa to the west. Moanalua is in the moku of Kona on the island of Oʻahu.

Kapūkakī specifically seems to have been the marker for the west end of the moku of Kona, as evidenced by the ʻōlelo noʻeau: “Kona mai ka puʻu o Kapūkakī a ka puʻu o Kawaihoa; Kona, from Kapūkakī to Kawaihoa. The extent of the Kona district on Oʻahu is from Kapūkakī (now Red Hill) to Kawaihoa (now Koko Head).”

One of the most sacred wahi pana in Moanalua was Leilono, located along the upper rim of Āliamanu crater. Leilono was an entrance to Pō, the place of gods and ancestral spirits. It was one of the “leaping places” of ghosts into the spirit world. Based on the writing of historian Samuel Kamakau, Kapūkakī may also have been a marker to identify Leilono. This is an excerpt from an essay written by Kamakau on caring for the dead:

Leilono at Moanalua, Oahu, was close to the rock Kapukaki and easterly of it (a ma ka naʻe aku), directly in line with the burial mound of Aliamanu and facing toward the right side of the North Star (a huli i ka ʻaoʻao ʻakau o ka Hokupaʻa). On the bank above the old trail there was a flat bed of pahoehoe lava, and on it there was a circular place about two feet in circumference. This was the entrance to go down; this was the topmost height (nuʻu) of Kapapaialaka, a place in the ʻaumakua realm. Here at the entrance, ka puka o Leilono, was a breadfruit tree of Leiwalo, he ʻulu o Leiwalo. It had two branches, one on the east side and one on the west.*

In the 1860s, Historian John Papa ʻĪʻī also wrote of Kapūkakī. This recollection is from a chapter on trails from Honolulu to ʻEwa in Fragments of Hawaiian History:

Let us turn to look at the trail going to Ewa from Kikihale, up to Leleo, to Koiuiu and on to Keoneula. There were no houses there, only a plain. It was there that the boy Ii and his attendants, coming from Ewa, met with the god Kaili and its attendants who were going to Hoaeae. When the kapu moe was proclaimed, they all prostrated themselves on the plain until the god and his attendants passed by…the trail went to Kaleinakauhane, then to Kapukaki, from where one could see the irregular sea of Ewa; then down the ridge to Napeha, a resting place for the multitude that went diving there at a deep pool. This pool was named Napeha (Lean Over), so it is said, because Kualii, a chief of ancient Oahu, went there and leaned over the pool to drink water.

The trail began again on the opposite side of the pool and went to the lowland of Halawa, on to Kauwamoa, a diving place and a much-liked gathering place. It was said to be the diving place of Peapea, son of Kamehamehanui of Maui who was swift in running and leaping. The place from which he dove into the water was 5 to 10 fathoms above the pool.*

*Kamakau and ʻĪʻī quotes sourced from hoakaleifoundation.org