World Insights: U.S. Navy comes under fire for massive fuel leaks in Hawaii

Chen Zhuo
2022-02-10 09:57:48

by Julia Pierrepont III

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 9 (Xinhua) -- U.S. state of Hawaii is up in arms over an ongoing water contamination crisis due to fuel leaks from the Navy's Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.

Hawaii House lawmakers on Tuesday advanced two bills aimed at shutting down the enormous fuel facility built inside mountains, which has contaminated water supply and is sending hundreds of residents to the hospital and forcing thousands of households to be relocated.

House Bill 2514 would add a provision to state law mandating that the maximum capacity of an underground storage tank "shall not exceed" 100,000 gallons. While HB 2274 would prohibit the issuance of state permits for underground fuel storage tanks within a half-mile (804.5 meters) of an aquifer, starting July 1.

The Red Hill depot located near the Pearl Harbor-Hickam Joint Base includes 20 massive 250-foot underground steel tanks encased in concrete, each holding more than 12 million gallons of jet and other fuel. And it is situated just 30 meters above Hawaii's main aquifer that supplies fresh water to most of Honolulu and much of Oahu County.

However, despite local lawmakers' latest efforts to close the facility through legislation, the federal government has been fighting against the Hawaiians' demand by challenging the state's shutdown order in court.

Following reports of the contamination in late November 2021, Hawaii's health department issued an emergency order to the Navy to shutdown the facility immediately to avoid further contamination and escalation of the public health crisis.

Instead of complying, on Feb. 2, the Navy opted to file lawsuits against the state of Hawaii in federal and state courts in an effort to delay the shutdown.

The courts upheld Hawaii's shutdown order, but the Navy is now appealing, arguing that it needs the fuel facility to protect national security and to use as a "strategic reserve" for operations in the Pacific. Two legal appeals are currently pending in federal and state courts.

Military families started complaining of the smell of jet fuel in the tap water in their homes. By Dec. 1, testing showed that the local elementary school water was contaminated with fuel, but the Navy commander issued a statement saying that the water was safe to drink. Hundreds of people ended up at the hospital due to the tainted water.

The whistleblower, Congressman Kaiali'i Kehele from Oahu, said at an online briefing Tuesday that he immediately went door-to-door in the affected area, speaking to worried residents and collecting water samples that clearly smelled of jet fuel.

Alarmed by continued denials on the part of the Navy, he immediately flew to Washington, D.C., where he and some of his congressional colleagues demanded immediate action.

"Would you drink this water?" Kehele demanded of the Navy officials at an emergency hearing, offering them a sample of the contaminated water. "This is a catastrophe for Hawaii."

Governor David Ige and Hawaii's Congressional delegation have called for immediate shutdown of the Red Hill tanks and, on Sunday, the health department ordered the Navy to suspend operations at the facility and remove all fuel from the tanks.

The Navy refused, calling Hawaii's emergency order "Erroneous, Arbitrary, Capricious, and an Abuse of Discretion; Clearly Unwarranted," despite official data from the Navy's Annual Water Quality Report showing toxicity readings well above legal safety limits.

Water is sacred to native Hawaiians, because fresh water on an island isolated in the middle of the salty sea is very hard to come by. "All Hawaiians are taught from childhood that Water is life", Kelehe said.

Since the facility became operational during WWII in 1943, there have been 72 documented leaks. The public was never warned of most of those leaks until the facility was declassified in 1995.

At a press conference on Feb. 2, Oahu Water Protector Mikey Inouye insisted that there should be consequences for the Navy violating the terms of the health department's emergency Order.

The Navy argued that because the tanks are buried, the number of leaks and degrees of damage to the tanks and supply piping are difficult to assess.

But local media pointed out that the Navy's broader concern is that the depot supplies fuel for military operations throughout the entire Indo-Pacific theater, or roughly 50 percent of the world. Decommissioning part of or all of it would seriously impact the scope of the naval and other U.S. military operations worldwide.

The public outrage and dismay has rapidly spread from community activists in the native-Hawaiian community to the public at large, and all the way up to Hawaii's state and federal leadership.

Senator Mazie Hirono issued a statement on Feb. 1, saying "This (draining of the tanks) must happen expeditiously and without any unnecessary delays. Let me be clear: the safety and well-being of the people of Hawaii must be the top priority."

Senator Brian Schatz also noted in a statement, "The DOD made a grave and unforced error that undermines public trust. Fortunately, we have civilian oversight of the military."

Law firm Earthjustice's attorney David Henkin, who represents the Sierra Club of Hawaii, said in statement on Jan. 31, "We cannot leave it up to the military to decide what is needed to protect Oahu's irreplaceable drinking water supply."

"The military should take very seriously the outrage of the local population over their threat to the drinking water for all the residents of the island and should withdraw its lawsuits and immediately state that it will permanently shut down the dangerous fuel tanks," Ann Wright, a retired U.S. Army Colonel and U.S. diplomat, said.

Other local residents are calling on President Joe Biden, as the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, to shutdown or even dismantle the Navy's red Hill storage tanks.

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