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US President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on February 3, 2022. (Photo: Saul Loeb / AFP)

The US Military Is Poisoning Hawaii. President Biden, Shut Down Red Hill

If Biden truly wants to leave a positive environmental legacy, he must strive for environmental justice. He can start by rectifying the damage done at Red Hill. Such action is the bare minimum when U.S. citizens are being poisoned by their own government.

Dylan Ramos

I would be remiss in my civic duty as a resident of Hawaii—and, for those who are not, my responsibility to every community impacted by the U.S. military—if I did not address the water crisis at Kapūkakī, otherwise known as Red Hill, Oʻahu.

President Biden has the power to order the defueling, decommissioning, and dismantling of the Navy's underground fuel storage tanks at Red Hill, which have been leaking and poisoning Hawaiʻi for over 70 years.

A bit of background on the issue is provided below, but the title of this piece is all you really need. As commander in chief, President Biden has the power to order the defueling, decommissioning, and dismantling of the Navy's underground fuel storage tanks at Red Hill, which have been leaking and poisoning Hawaiʻi for over 70 years. Mr. President, now is the time to do so.

The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, located near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, services military work throughout the Pacific. It includes 20 underground storage tanks, each a 250-foot steel behemoth encased in concrete. At least 15 of them are currently in use, collectively holding up to 187,500,000 gallons of fuel.

Rainwater has been seeping in between the concrete and tank walls for decades, causing points of severe corrosion. Due to the concrete and surrounding earth, such damage is difficult to monitor, but early detection is crucial since the tanks' steel lining started out only a quarter of an inch thick.

Most importantly, the tanks sit just 100 feet above the groundwater table of Oʻahu's sole source aquifer, which provides water across the entire city of Honolulu and to thousands of businesses and families in the larger county.

Since the facility began operating in 1943, there have been at least 72 documented leaks, the first occurring as early as 1948. The public was never even told about most leaks until much later, because the facility was only declassified in 1995.

Even after that point, little public scrutiny was raised until a 27,000-gallon leak of fuel and water was discovered in 2014, activating water protectors across Hawaiʻi. The disaster led to the issuance of a 20-year enforceable agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency, Hawaii State Department of Health, Navy, and Defense Logistics Agency. This Administrative Order on Consent requires the military agencies to implement both remediative and preventative measures approved by the regulatory parties.

However, despite the AOC and steadfast advocacy by water protectors—including the Sierra Club of Hawaii, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, and cultural leaders—at least three more leaks have been documented since 2020. The most recent leak was reported late last November. About a week later, military and civilian families near Red Hill started reporting a fuel odor in their water and even some illness. In each recent case, just as with all of Red Hill's past leaks, the military obfuscated the truth, low-balled initial leak estimates, and/or downplayed the threat to the public and environment.

A Native Hawaiian-led movement helped pressure the Navy into saying on January 10 that it would defuel the tanks pursuant to a DOH emergency order. But as quickly as that victory was won, it was even sooner reversed.

On January 31, the Department of Defense announced that it would contest the emergency order. Two days later—the order's deadline for the military to submit defueling plans—Oʻahu Water Protectors held a press conference outside the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. From their press release:

"Oʻahu Water Protector Mikey Inouye asks for accountability, 'There should be consequences for violating the terms of the DOH's Emergency Order:  Cut off the wasted water to the Militaryʻs seven sprawling  golf courses.  Cancel the Rim of the Pacific massive naval exercise this summer.  Deny any training permits for their destructive war games on the state and county level. Do not renew any of the Military's upcoming land leases for starters.'

'It's such an egregious assault on our public trust and highlights the failure of our bureaucracy,' said Kamanamaikalani Beamer, a former member of the State Water Resource Management Commission who is a University of Hawaii professor of Hawaiian studies and the law.

'Red Hill must be shut down. We need courageous leadership and we need to recognize that the only extreme thing to do in this situation is to keep doing the same thing,' he said. 'We can't keep the fuel above the aquifer anymore.'"

Dr. Beamer is right. On top of the snail-paced mitigation process and contested case hearings, health officials have expressed doubts about cleanup efforts, and the state order leaves open the possibility for re-permitting and refueling the tanks once supposed mitigations are implemented. Subsequently, despite a new wave of media attention, numerous proposals for what can be done with the fuel, and calls from all levels of civil society and government to shut down Red Hill, the military has shown little interest in permanently decommissioning the facility.

Without immediate action, the Hawaiʻi's water crisis only grows more dangerous. According to the Navy's own studies, there is an over 80% chance of a 1,000- to 30,000-gallon fuel leak within the next five years—a nearly 100% chance within the next ten.

If Biden truly wants to leave a positive environmental legacy, he must strive for environmental justice. He can start by rectifying the damage done at Red Hill. Such action is the bare minimum when U.S. citizens are being poisoned by their own government. This piece barely mentions other concerning military sites across Hawaiʽi, let alone the colonial framework that allowed this to happen, i.e., U.S. military occupation of Hawaiian lands.

Nevertheless, if headlines about helping a so-called "blue state" aren't enough, then I encourage the president to follow up on his action at Red Hill with proper redress for those who are still awaiting accountability in North Carolina, where similar decades-long issues have plagued communities in and around Camp Lejeune. At that point, if Biden's on a roll, there are many more victims of U.S. military pollution across the globe who deserve justice.

But first things first: President Biden, shut down Red Hill.

Correction: This article has been updated to indicate the storage tanks collectively hold 187,500,000, not 1,875,000, gallons of fuel.


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Dylan Ramos

Dylan Ramos was born and raised in East Honolulu, studied political science at Loyola Marymount University, and has been involved with Hawaiʻi environmental groups for nearly a decade.

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