Last week, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan conducted an inspection of the U.S. military’s World War II-era Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Honolulu to determine if it was operating in accordance with the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. On Monday, March 7, the Department of Defense announced plans to close the facility.
The announcement follows a months-long water contamination crisis caused by leaking military underground fuel tanks that have displaced around thousands of households in Honolulu’s Red Hill neighborhood and poisoned many. Meanwhile, the Navy has tried multiple attempts to keep the tanks running.
According to an EPA spokesperson, the Navy is currently pumping and treating impacted groundwater with granular activated carbon filters and conducting product skimming from the Navy’s Red Hill Shaft.
In November 2021, about 14,000 gallons of fuel and water were released from the U.S. Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, which sits just 100 feet above Oahu’s primary drinking water supply, the Southern Oahu Basal Aquifer.
“This sacred aquifer is culturally significant and has always provided for life on this island,” said Wayne Tanaka, director of the Sierra Club of Hawai’i. The loss of this aquifer means a strain on a limited water supply that could impact hospitals, schools, and the other islands.
In the early 1940s, the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility was built to hold fuel in case of an enemy attack. The facility comprises 20 steel-lined tanks built 100 feet under the rocks of Red Hill, a volcanic mountain range. Each tank is about the height of a 25-story building and carries 12.5 million gallons of fuel for ships and jets, which is transported via pipelines. According to the Sierra Club of Hawai’i, the Navy hasn’t been following its own inspection schedule—three tanks have not been inspected in over 38 years and are in poor condition.
For the past century, Hawai’i has been used as the U.S. military’s strategic outpost in the Pacific. This water crisis is just another in a string of exploitation and occupation by the military. As one of the world’s largest polluters in history, the military has a track record of colonizing other regions, cashing in on often irreplaceable natural resources, and contaminating those regions, including herbicides intentionally used on Guam throughout the Cold War and toxic water dumped in Okinawa, Japan, as recently as 2021.
Hawai’i has an often palpably tense relationship with the military. From World War II until the early 1990s, Kahoolawe—the smallest of the eight main Hawaiian Islands—was used as a training ground and bombing range for the military. In 1982, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald printed a headline that read: “Navy: No damage to Kahoolawe.” Indigenous Native Hawaiian activists have been working to restore the island as a natural and cultural reserve.
“It demonstrates what so many people already know—that the military has complete disregard for Hawaiian land,” said Sam Ikehara, an activist born and raised on Oahu and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California researching antimilitarism in Asia and the Pacific Islands. “The disregard for our lives and the places we love is not surprising, but what did surprise us was the military was willing to sacrifice their own families.”
The Navy quickly assured the public that it stopped the spill before it could mix with the water, but more than 6,000 medical screenings conducted by the Military Health Services found symptoms consistent with petroleum exposure. It was later revealed that samples from Red Hill showed petroleum levels that were 350 times what’s considered safe. About 4,000 military families were relocated.
Iraq War veteran Aedyn Rhys-King was born on Oahu and raised in North Dakota. In 2016, he, his fiancé Mandy, and their newborn son Kaleo moved to Oahu to take care of his grandmother. In September 2021, the young family moved in with roommates to a home located in former Navy housing called Kapilina Beach Homes in Ewa Beach on the west side of Oahu.
“I was asking everybody in the house if their skin was itchy and dry after they showered,” says Rhys-King. “My hair was shedding a lot more too.”
Initially, he didn’t think it had to do with the water. On Dec. 3, Rhys-King’s fiancé showered before work and ended up with a rash on her back that felt like “it was on fire.” She went to the emergency room a total of five times that month due to chest pain, nausea, and shortness of breath. King reached out to the housing management and military multiple times, but they insisted the water was safe.
The Navy has been using a decontamination method called flushing to remove remaining contaminants from the water in their house only recently, which King calls “a band-aid” solution. As a civilian family, Rhys-King said they were not offered to be put up in a hotel by the military and couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. The family has stayed in their home trying to avoid tap water and spends time outside as much as possible because without those measures their son suffers from lethargy and Rhys-King experiences headaches.
So far, following flushing and screening for total petroleum hydrocarbons of the water system, seven of the 19 zones impacted by the fuel leak are safe for people to return by the Hawai’i Department of Health. The EPA also supports this tactic, according to an EPA spokesperson. However, many residents have expressed concerns about going home.
The Navy was initially resistant to the idea of shutting down the tanks, evening appealing an order from the state to defuel the tanks. The Navy and the Hawai’i Department of Health did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.
Since 2014 during a previous “wake up call” fuel leak, the Sierra Club of Hawai’i has been advocating to shut down Red Hill. After the latest leak, the Sierra Club, along with other activist groups like O’ahu Water Protectors, have been petitioning politicians to get federal attention on the crisis. Last month, it happened. On Feb. 18 President Joe Biden signed a bill into law that allocates $350 million to the water crisis, with $100 million specifically allocated to drain the fuel tanks.
Meanwhile, King is making plans to relocate to the mainland at the end of the month.
“I’m concerned the fuel leak is more widespread than people think or the Navy’s even letting people on,” he said. “Is anywhere in Hawai’i going to be safe with the water? What’s going to happen six months from now?”