Protect What You Love

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Water Protectors Prepare for a “New Ballgame” in the Shut Down Red Hill Campaign

With Honolulu Police Department officers by his side, Jimmy Auld used his bullhorn to urge along the last few dozen marchers as they crossed the final street before their destination: the Navy Exchange Shopping Mall parking lot, directly opposite the Honolulu headquarters of Navy Facilities and Engineering Command, or NAVFAC.

As people made their way to the sidewalk – a kupuna kāne waving a banner-sized hae Hawaiʻi, a handful of young parents with “Ola i ka Wai” signs on strollers – Auld turned to the line of cars waiting to leave the mall.

“We love you!” Auld shouted. His amplified voice cut through wind and glass windows, to drivers and passengers most if not all associated with the U.S. Department of Defense.

“We love you! We are doing this to protect your water too! We all drink the same water! We love our island and we love you and we are protecting all of us!”

That day, on Dec. 10, 2022, nearly 2,000 water protectors converged at Keʻehi Lagoon Beach Park, to take a 3.5-mile trek to the Navy agency overseeing the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.

Photo: Kupuna with a keiki
A tiny kiaʻi wai gives beleaguered Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau a hug after he spoke at the Walk for Wai rally on Dec. 10. Said Lau afterwards, “This is why I do my job.” – Photo: Jason Lees

A week earlier, news of a 1,300-gallon spill of firefighting foam concentrate containing “forever chemicals,” or PFAS, from the Red Hill facility led Honolulu Board of Water Supply (BWS) Chief Engineer Ernest Lau to break down in tears, fearful of the future harm to Oʻahu’s ‘āina, and ultimately, its primary drinking water aquifer.

His reaction was not out of proportion: two of the most-studied types of PFAS contained in the spill, PFOS and PFOA, are subject to federal EPA health advisories establishing “safe” limits at 20 and four parts per quadrillion. Twenty parts per quadrillion – the higher limit – is the equivalent of a single drop in 1,000 Olympic swimming pools.

With PFAS’ tendency to bioaccumulate in living organisms, combined with their high mobility within the environment, pigs, fish, produce, streams and groundwater from the region could pose a growing health risk for consumers over time.

These “forever chemicals” also do not break down for over a thousand years, meaning that they could pose a threat of cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive harm and other serious illnesses for those born far beyond our current lifetimes.

Lau and the BWS have long warned policymakers and the public about the dangers of the WWII-era Red Hill Facility, located underground and just 100 feet above Oʻahu’s water table. The facility has had dozens of “unscheduled fuel movements” (spills) throughout the entirety of its existence, including a spill in 2021 that sent thousands to the hospital, placed thousands more at risk of long-term and unknown health effects from ingesting fuel-contaminated water, and left a 5,000-gallon plume of unknown size and direction of movement in the island’s sole source aquifer.

To prevent the existing plume from entering and irreversibly contaminating Honolulu’s water system, BWS has shut down its nearby wells, including its major Hālawa shaft, limiting water availability on Oʻahu for the next five to seven years.

After the latest spill of “forever chemicals” that resulted in Lau’s tearful demand that no more harm be inflicted on Oʻahu’s water, Auld, Malia Marquez, and other members of the grassroots nonprofit Puʻuhonua o Wailupe joined forces with the O‘ahu Water Protectors, Sierra Club of Hawai‘i, Shut Down Red Hill Mutual Aid, Hawai‘i People’s Fund and the Hawaiʻi Youth Climate Coalition to begin a weeklong marathon planning session for a mass mobilization action. Their efforts eventually brought in the support of over 65 organizations and businesses, as well as the Honolulu Police Department and the Board of Water Supply itself.

The outcome: an unprecedented “Walk for Wai” that saw upwards of 1,500 water protectors – doctors, lawyers, construction workers, students, retirees, military spouses and demilitarization activists, Democrats and Republicans, individuals from all walks of life – march to NAVFAC’s doorstep, in defense of Oʻahu’s most precious resource and the very future and fate of the island.

Navy officials did not respond to the march but did participate in an in-person “town hall” the following Monday, although they declined to field live questions from the sickened families and water protectors in attendance.

“With these forever chemicals – this is a new ballgame,” explained Healani Sonoda-Pale, an organizer with the O‘ahu Water Protectors and the Puʻuhonua o Wailupe. “They’ve totally contaminated water sources at hundreds of military bases across the world – from Okinawa to Guåhan (Guam) to Camp Lejeune, the list goes on – and we can’t let that happen here. This is our home, we have nowhere else to go.

“We’ve had some successes, but everyone out there needs to know…this is far from over.”

For well over a year, the Oʻahu Water Protectors alongside the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi and more recently formed groups such as the Kaʻohewai Coalition and the Uchinanchu-led Shimanchu Wai Protectors have fought to defuel and shut down the Red Hill facility at Kapūkakī.

While community activism led to a historic Pentagon decision in March 2022 to finally shutter the antiquated facility, Navy officials say it will take well over a year to remove the 104 million gallons of fuel still remaining in its massive and actively corroding underground storage tanks. Removing the leftover oil sludge, cleaning chemicals and other hazardous waste – all of which will continue to threaten Oʻahu’s aquifer – could take years longer.

Joint Task Force Red Hill Commander Rear Admiral John Wade has also refused to call the situation an emergency, despite the vulnerability of the tanks to an earthquake- or age-related structural failure that could destroy the primary drinking water supply for O‘ahu. The environmental, cultural, humanitarian and socioeconomic catastrophe that would result has been characterized by observers as the “death of an island.”

Notably, just a week after the march, the latest spill of PFAS was revealed to not have been the first from the Red Hill facility.

Tipped off by an anonymous source, local news agency Civil Beat discovered that a 5,000-gallon firefighting foam release had previously occurred in 2020. When directly asked about a possible spill by DOH inspectors at the time, Navy officials denied that any foam had been involved. The prior spill and lack of honesty has only further heightened community leaders’ demands for emergency action, and much greater levels of federal intervention by agencies with environmental and engineering expertise.

“We cannot stand by and watch our island die. We cannot be the generation that witnesses the loss of a source of life after it has provided for our ancestors, our island for thousands of years,” urged Sonoda-Pale. “We need everyone who cares about Hawaiʻi, who loves our home and our people, to learn more, get engaged and do what it takes to protect what you love.”


For more information and to get engaged in the Red Hill campaign, sign up for action alerts at www.sierraclubhawaii.org/redhill; follow @oahuwaterprotectors, @sierraclubhi, @shutdownredhillmutualaid, and @kaohewai on Instagram; and sign and share a petition to Congress at bit.ly/rh-pfas.