After months of protests by kiaʻi wai (water protectors) representing dozens of organizations and stonewalling by the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense’s (DOD) announcement in early March that the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage facility at Kapūkakī would be permanently shut down came as a welcome surprise to the community.
“The decision is a testament to the work of all those in our community who came together over many years to address the threat the facility poses to our wai, our freshwater supply, and all the life that depends on it,” said Camille Kalama, a Native Hawaiian rights attorney and a core leader of Kaʻohewai, a Native Hawaiian coalition formed to protect the aquifer at Kapūkakī.
In the March 7 statement, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said that the DOD would work closely with the Hawaiʻi Department of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency to safely defuel the Red Hill facility and promised that by May 31 the Secretary of the Navy and the Director of the Defense Logistics Agency would provide an action plan to defuel the facility with a completion date of 12 months. Austin also indicated that the closure of the facility would include “all necessary environmental remediation.”
The 20 massive underground storage tanks that comprise the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage facility are buried just 100 feet above the Southern Oʻahu basal aquifer which supplies fresh water to more than 40% of Oʻahu residents.
Over the past seven decades, it is estimated that about 180,000 gallons of fuel have leaked from the facility. Concerns about the aging 80-year-old tanks and their proximity to the aquifer are not new. In 2014, about 27,000 gallons of jet fuel leaked from a tank at the Red Hill facility. The tank was drained but it was a red flag and in 2015 the Hawaiʻi Department of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency negotiated with the military for increased oversight on tank corrosion, inspections and maintenance.
In early 2020, the Navy failed to report a leak of about 7,700 gallons of fuel in Puʻuloa (Pearl Harbor) allegedly because it did not want to negatively affect its application for a five-year state permit to operate the Red Hill facility. In May 2021 there was another leak from the site due to “operator error.” The Navy initially claimed that 1,618 gallons of fuel leaked in that instance, but during a hearing in December officials admitted that closer to 19,000 gallons of fuel may have leaked into the surrounding environment.
Then in November, leaking fuel from the facility contaminated the Red Hill well. Some 92,000 Oʻahu residents – most of them living in military housing – were affected when jet fuel contaminated their freshwater. Approximately 5,000 people fell ill; some residents also reported that their pets became sick or died.
With the imminent threat to all Oʻahu residents obvious, the November 2021 fuel leak united and galvanized the community to take action. Over the next few months, kiaʻi wai demanded that the Navy shut down the facility and organized public protests and rallies to call attention to the crisis. Members of Kaʻohewai constructed a koʻa (shrine) at the entrance of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Command headquarters.
Hawaiʻi state and congressional leaders joined with Native Hawaiian and environmental groups to demand that the Navy shut down the facility, with the Department of Health issuing an order in early December to immediately defuel and suspend operation of the facility, which the Navy contested. On January 31, the DOD said it would appeal the state order and three days later attorneys for the Navy filed the appeal.
With public pressure mounting, Hawaiʻi congressional representatives Ed Case and Kai Kahele, and Sen. Brian Schatz also announced their intention to introduce legislation to permanently shut down Red Hill. On February 18, a congressional spending bill that includes $403 million to address the crisis – including draining the fuel from the tanks – was signed by President Joe Biden. An inspection of the site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was scheduled for February 28, and a week later the DOD announced it would permanently shut down Red Hill.
In the DOD’s statement, Austin said that “centrally located bulk fuel storage of this magnitude likely made sense in 1943…but it makes a lot less sense now. The distributed and dynamic nature of our force posture in the Indo-Pacific, the sophisticated threats we face, and the technology available to us demand an equally advanced and resilient fueling capacity.”
Austin also noted that closing Red Hill “is the right thing to do.”
The announcement was greeted with cautious optimism by the community. However, distrust of the military has deep roots in Hawaiʻi, and most kiaʻi wai are remaining vigilant.
“Admitting you have a problem is just step one in the journey to fixing it,” said Sierra Club Hawaiʻi Director Wayne Tanaka. “We all need to continue to hold the Navy accountable, not just in this promise to defuel and shut down Red Hill, but to address the harms that have occurred and will continue to occur due to the mess it created, and to provide us with the resources necessary to pull us out of the ongoing contamination crisis.”
“For years the Navy has been telling us that the Red Hill facility is vital for national security and irreplaceable,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. “Now the Secretary of Defense has done a 180 and concluded that the facility is out-of-date and that, in the 21st century, there are much better ways to supply the military with fuel. This just goes to show that we really need to take a healthy dollop of salt with the military’s claims that its decades-old, environmentally destructive ways of doing things are necessary to defend the nation.
“Now the Navy needs to drop its appeals of the Department of Health’s emergency order requiring defueling of the Red Hill tanks, and withdraw its application for a permit to keep operating the polluting facility.”
Upon hearing the DOD’s announcement, Oʻahu Water Protectors issued a statement acknowledging the good news – and their determination to remain vigilant and continue their work to advocate for a definitive end to the water crisis.
The group presented a formal list of demands to the U.S. government that, in addition to the immediate defueling and closure of the facility, includes withdrawal of the Navy’s appeal and permit application, funding to pay for remediation of the crisis in full (including state and county expenses), full remediation and decontamination of the site and surrounding area, financial compensation for those directly affected by the November leak, establishment of a community oversight board, and a commitment not to relocate the fuel storage facility elsewhere in Hawaiʻi.
While members of Kaʻohewai view the DOD’s announcement as an important milestone, they are concerned about the timeline.
“Every day that goes by poses additional threats to the wellbeing of our aquifer, as the Navyʼs own studies estimate that undetected leaks release approximately 5,800 gallons of fuel annually, which translates to 111 gallons weekly or over 15 gallons every single day,” noted Kalehua Krug, another Kaʻohewai leader.
“Kaʻohewaiʼs focus going forward will be ensuring that defueling is expedited and adheres to the highest standards of safety, that restoration of the areas affected are fully accomplished, and that plans to relocate the fuel will not pose a future threat to any community and other land or ocean settings.”
Added Kalama, “We are committed to ensuring that the decision is carried out and that the necessary resources are provided to fully remediate and restore the affected wells, surrounding land, and impacted communities. Our aloha goes out to those who continue to suffer the direct results of water contamination in their homes, schools, and workplaces.”
In a statement issued by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Chairperson Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey commended the DOD’s decision and acknowledged the efforts of the community and government officials who fought to protect our irreplaceable water resources, but noted that there is still difficult work ahead.
“As this facility is defueled and shut down, we must all continue to monitor the situation. OHA is dedicated to advocating, promoting, and demonstrating appropriate, responsible, and just wai stewardship practices and values throughout Hawaiʻi, mutually empowering OHA and communities to ʻauamo (carry) the shared responsibility of protecting and ensuring the proper management of our water resources.”
Hawaiʻi Public Radio has created a detailed timeline of events pertaining to this issue. Check it out at: www.hawaiipublicradio.org/local-news/2021-12-21/confused-about-the-timeline-for-the-red-hill-fuel-storage-facility-and-contaminated-water-read-this
To read the DOD’s March 7 statement in full go to: www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/2957825/statement-by-secretary-of-defense-lloyd-j-austin-iii-on-the-closure-of-the-red/