From Kahoʻolawe to Red Hill

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Photo: Brendon Kalei'aina Lee

At a press conference on Feb. 11, 2022, Congressman Kaialiʻi Kahele laid out the four paths to shut down the Red Hill fuel storage tanks.

The first would be for President Biden to do what President Bush did in 1990 when he ordered the bombing to halt on Kahoʻolawe. As Commander-in-Chief, he could simply order the Navy to do it. Second would be what Hawaiʻi’s two congressmen have done – submitting legislation that would make it a law for the Navy to cease operations, de-fuel, and remove the storage tanks at Red Hill. The third path would be for the Pentagon to order the Navy to cease operations, and the fourth would be for the Department of Defense (DOD) to comply with the State of Hawaiʻi’s emergency order to cease operations and de-fuel.

What is interesting about these options is that for decades the Navy refused to halt bombing operations on Kahoʻolawe, claiming “national defense.” Their claim was that the bombing was necessary to maintain a readiness force. This is the same claim that the DOD is making now regarding Red Hill. The problem with this is since 1990, the United States has been in two wars, the Gulf War and the War on terrorism in Afghanistan, all without Kahoʻolawe.

Photo: Congressman Kai Kahele speaks out against the Navy’s Red Hill fuel storage tanks
Congressman Kai Kahele speaks out against the Navy’s Red Hill fuel storage tanks at a rally at the Hawai’i State Capitol on February 11. – Photo: Cindy Ellen Russell, Star-Advertiser

In 1946, when the fuel tanks in Red Hill were constructed, the world was a much larger place. The Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor relied on the fuel in these tanks to operate in the Pacific theater. We are now in a new millennium, and in 2022 this is no longer the case. Many US Naval assets are nuclear-powered and do not rely on fuel. Technology now provides ships and aircraft with much greater ranges than in 1946, meaning less fuel needs to be stored.

While it was important to end the bombing on Kahoʻolawe and have the island returned to the Hawaiian people, it pales in comparison to the need to preserve the freshwater supply for the island of Oʻahu. I cannot even imagine how our state would continue if nearly one million people could not access freshwater. There have been many conversations over the past two years to diversify our economy that is so heavily reliant on the visitor industry. A major part of that conversation is agriculture. Both of these industries are reliant on freshwater.

Bottom line: I am appreciative of Hawaiʻi’s congressional team introducing legislation to require the DOD to de-fuel and remove the storage tanks at Red Hill. I am disappointed that it had to come to this to make that happen. The US military is supposed to protect its citizens, and this is a monumental failure on that front.