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Native Hawaiians fight contamination from O’ahu Navy facility

In November 2021, military families stationed on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu discovered that their water had begun to smell like gas. As reported by the Honolulu Civil Beat, they began suffering a host of physical symptoms: vomiting, stomachaches, diarrhea, nosebleeds. One resident noted a strange film forming on her water; another reported being able to ignite the water from her faucet. Though the Navy initially claimed there were “no immediate indications that the water is not safe” in a message to residents, they eventually advised families to stop using the water.

RELATED: Fuel spill in Hawaii contaminates water of 1,700 families

The contaminated water was a consequence of a leak of around 14,000 gallons of fuel and water from Red Hill, a nearby Navy fuel storage facility. However, the news was unsurprising to many Native Hawaiian residents, whose concerns about the facility’s safety risks had long been dismissed. Shelley Muneoka, a Native Hawaiian member of the O’ahu Water Protectors coalition, told Waging Nonviolence that she had warned of Red Hill’s potential for disastrous leaks since 2014.

“I think there’s a reckoning happening,” Muneoka told Waging Nonviolence. “For the military families, their whole lives are premised on the belief in this system. For them, I think there’s a lot of feeling of shock and betrayal. For Hawaiians, we are not surprised, sadly.”

Per the Star Adviser, the Navy had contested an emergency order to drain the fuel tanks issued by the Hawaiian Department of Health on December 6th. The Navy had argued that they had sufficiently responded and mitigated the damage from the leak. However, a report from Deputy Attorney General David Day released on December 27th described the facility as “a ticking time bomb,” further calling for the Navy to remove the fuel stored.

According to Day’s report, the Red Hill Facility was built during World War II, and contains 20 underground storage tanks filled with marine diesel and two types of jet fuel. The facility is located directly above the Southern O’ahu Basal Aquifer, which provides 77% of O’ahu’s total water. The facility had leaked a minimum of 76 recorded times over the past 80 years, including as recently as 2014 and June 2021. Day notes that these numbers are likely underestimates, as Navy responses have historically been slow and may minimize the true leak data.

“The evidence shows that the Red Hill Facility is simply too old, too poorly designed, too difficult to maintain, too difficult to inspect, along with being too large to realistically prevent future releases,” Day wrote in the report. He added: “The situation is beyond the Navy’s ability to adequately mitigate the threats posed by the continued operation of the Red Hill Facility, with USTs filled with fuel, at this time.”

Day’s conclusions on the dangers of Red Hills have been echoed by other experts and government officials. According to Civil Beat, Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau has consistently warned about the risks of a fuel leak for years.

“My fear was that something terrible would happen before people wake up and this comes to their attention,” Lau said.

From O‘ahu Water Protectors via Facebook

For Native Hawaiian activists, the increased publicity has garnered considerable support for their campaign to “Shut Down Red Hill.” Muneoka told Waging Nonviolence that Native Hawaiian activists had previously faced retaliation for speaking against the military. However, the involvement of military families has placed a new spotlight on an issue they had been fighting for years.

“On the one hand, [we’re] really feeling devastated that it’s come to this and really scared for what this means for the future of life on O’ahu,” Muneoka said. “On the other hand, [we’re] really having to dig deep to activate and motivate. All of a sudden, every day, tons of things are happening.”

As the government contends with the military to defuel Red Hill, O’ahu Water Protectors have been particularly active. Activists hosted a die-in and rally at the Hawaiian State Capital on December 10th. On December 12th, a group of around 70 Native Hawaiians held a ceremony at the gates of the U.S. Navy Pacific Command, singing as they built a stone altar dedicated to the Hawaiian god of water before holding a ceremony.

Day’s proposal will be subsequently reviewed by Department of Health Deputy Director Marian Tsuji, who is responsible for the final decision on the Red Hill issue. The Navy has also filed exceptions to Day’s findings, continuing to fight against defueling the tanks in the facility.

Meanwhile, the O’ahu Water Protectors continue to protest that “Ola i ka Wai,” or “Water is Life.” In a statement on Twitter “applauding” Day’s conclusion, the group called for Red Hill to be entirely shut down.

“We simply do not have time for the Navy’s games. We are not willing to sacrifice our water for war,” they wrote. “Thus, we urge DOH and deputy Director of Health Marian Tsuji to put the health of Hawai’i’s people first, and render a final decision to uphold the emergency order in its entirety as soon as possible.”

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