O’ahu, Red Hill, and the environmental disaster that is the U.S. armed forces.

The U.S. military is an ongoing environmental disaster and violation of human rights. The United States of America has been engaged in war, officially and unofficially, for 92% of its history, and as time has gone on, that war has become increasingly destructive not just to humans and our surroundings, but to the environment. Those who’ve been paying attention will know that pollution and the effects of environmental degredation do far more harm to those at the bottom of the political, economic, and racial hierarchies of the world.  This is why justice has become a key part of the modern environmental movement, and why dismantling white supremacy, capitalism, and other hierarchical systems is a crucial part of our fight for a better world.

Part of that effort includes understanding that the United States is still very much a colonial empire that exerts power on a global scale, and that works to maintain the injustices created in the establishment of that empire. The native people of the various bits of land the U.S. has claimed – those that survive – are still very much under the thumb of an occupying power, and it shows. The Water Protectors who have been opposing the Keystone XL pipeline probably got the most attention over the last decade, but similar fights have been ongoing not just across the United States, but around the world. Many of the fights are against corporations, which often have government support, but some are also directly against the U.S. government. One of these that has gone under-reported is the ongoing poisoning of O’ahu’s drinking water by the U.S. Navy.

For nearly 80 years, the U.S. Navy has stored well over 100 million gallons of fuel in 20, 20-story massive underground storage tanks in Kapūkakī, also known as Red Hill, a ridge between Hālawa and Moanalua.

Located a mere 100 feet above Oʻahu’s primary drinking water source these deteriorating tanks have leaked more than 180,000 gallons of fuel over their lifetime. Their walls have corroded to less than the thickness of a dime and are under high pressure from the large volume of jet fuel. While the Board of Water Supply maintains that Oʻahu’s drinking water is currently safe to consume, the recent pattern of leaks suggests that the tanks and their connected distribution system are failing and have a high probability of catastrophic failure that would make our water supply undrinkable:

– In 2014, 27,000 gallons of jet fuel leaked from Tank 5.
– In March 2020, a pipeline connected to Red Hill leaked an unknown quantity of fuel into Pearl Harbor Hotel Pier. The leak, which had stopped, started again in June 2020.  Approximately 7,100 gallons of fuel was collected from the surrounding environment.
– In January 2021, a pipeline that leads to the Hotel Pier area failed two leak detection tests. In February, a Navy contractor determined that there is an active leak at Hotel Pier. The Department of Health only found out in May.
– In May 2021, over 1,600 gallons of fuel leaked from the facility due to human error after a control room operator failed to follow correct procedures.
– In July 2021, 100 gallons of fuel was released into Pearl Harbor, possibly from a source connected to the Red Hill facility.
– In November 2021, residents from the neighborhoods of Foster Village and Aliamanu called 911 to report the smell of fuel, later found likely to have come from a leak from a fire suppression drain line connected to Red Hill. -The Navy reported that about 14,000 gallons of a fuel-water mixture had leaked.
– The Navy’s own risk assessment  reports that there is a 96% chance that up to 30,000 gallons of fuel will leak into the aquifer over the next 10 years.

The Red Hill fuel tanks are an environmental time bomb threatening the drinking water for 400,000 Oʻahu residents.

In general, the default position of the U.S. government is that if it did anything bad, no it didn’t. My first encounter with this was in high school, when I was briefly involved in the movement to close the School of the Americas/WHINSEC, and to bring justice to its victims. In addition to attending a protest in Georgia, signing petitions, and doing all that sort of stuff, the group I was with also met with a US army PR officer, who simply denied that anything bad had ever happened in association with the institution or its graduates. Skim through the list of notable graduates on the Wikipedia link above, you’ll note one or two things that don’t seem to align with that story.

The same is true here. This news report on the crisis has some pretty good reporting, including the fact that the Navy was warned about this almost a decade before it happened, and they were denying it past the point where their own people, living on-base, were getting sick. It seems that the main civilian water supply is still clean, but there’s no way to be sure that the contamination just hasn’t reached that far yet, or that another spill won’t happen at any time.

I think it’s also important to note, here, that the callous disregard that the U.S. government holds for powerless people extends to those people tied to its military. There are a lot of veterans and military families who’ve had to spend their lives in and out of hospitals and trying to get coverage for ailments caused by exposure to burn pits, agent orange, and a host of other stuff, and it looks like these folks are joining their ranks.

More than two dozen families have joined a lawsuit accusing the U.S. Navy of making them sick from jet fuel that leaked into the tap water in their Hawaii homes.

There are now more than 100 people in an amended lawsuit filed Thursday that also accuses the Navy of destroying more than 1,000 water samples collected from affected homes.

The families say in the lawsuit the samples could have revealed chemicals in the water.

Navy spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. James Adams said the Navy doesn’t comment on current litigation.

A fuel storage facility in the hills above Pearl Harbor leaked petroleum into the Navy’s tap water system last year and sickened nearly 6,000 people, mostly those living in military housing.

The lawsuit was initially filed in August with four families alleging the Navy hasn’t fully disclosed the scope of the contamination and hasn’t provided appropriate medical care to those who are sick.

The lawsuit said the Navy continues to claim families are not sick from the jet fuel exposure.

It’s honestly very reminiscent of the way fossil fuel companies have denied contamination from fracking activities, denied the risk of earthquakes from wastewater injection, denied climate change… Why, it’s almost like the U.S. military and the fossil fuel industry are sharing notes! As always, I am with these families in their fight for justice, and I’m with everyone fighting to defuel Red Hill and end that threat to the aquifer.

But, of course, the problems don’t end there. While the fuel tanks will supposedly be empty by 2024, the process has been delayed by a different toxic spill.

The Navy says there is no evidence of any drinking water contamination after a spill of about 1,100 gallons of fire suppressant at a fuel facility in Hawaii.

A cleanup is underway at the Red Hill fuel facility after the spill Tuesday of Aqueous Film Forming Foam, which is used to suppress fires caused by flammable liquids such as fuel and contain PFAS, a class of chemicals that are slow to degrade in the environment.

“This is egregious,” Kathleen Ho, a Hawaii environmental official, said in a news release. “AFFF contains PFAS forever chemicals — groundwater contamination could be devastating to our aquifer.”

At least we have them to protect us from the bad guys, right? I suppose one small ray of light is that if the water supply does end up being contaminated, we’re closer to being able to remove PFAS from it. What’s interesting is that there seems to be some kind of cover-up underway relating to this spill. I suppose it could be serial incompetence, but at the risk of sounding conspiratorial, I’ll just say that this seems odd to me:

The state Health Department is demanding that the military release video of the latest spill at the Red Hill fuel facility.

Last week, military leaders said there was no video of the toxic spill of firefighting foam concentrate.

But officials later corrected that, saying there was actually video.

But the military says it won’t release the closed circuit video because it “may impact the integrity of the investigation.” Instead, military officials say they’ll allow the state Health Department regulators to see the video without sharing a copy.

The Health Department, in response, said it’s imperative that the Joint Task Force on Red Hill makes the video available to the public as soon as possible in the “interest of honesty and transparency.”

Wayne Tanaka, director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, called the military’s decision “ludicrous.”

“This just isn’t a matter of transparency or even after the fact investigation, this is a matter of saving lives,” he said.

Kat McClanahan, former Pearl Harbor resident, worries about the impact of the toxic concentrate on the environment ― and says the military should release the video to clear up doubt.

“I’m scared that they are hiding something, that something else is going on,” she said.

Gary Gill was deputy director of environmental health for nine years at the state Health Department under two governors. The Navy’s 27,000-gallon fuel spill from Red Hill happened in 2014 during his tenure.

“With a facility as complex as Red Hill and as old as Red Hill you can just assume there’s going to be a continual number of these events,” said Gill.

In 2013, Gill saw naphthalene ― a chemical in gasoline ― detected in the Navy’s monitoring well just 20 feet from the Red Hill drinking water shaft. The military dismissed it, he said.

“I think the Navy’s chain of command and their mission, they are there to be ready for war,” said Gill.

“They don’t really have the resources or the imperative to manage these environmental issues,”

I often talk about how we need to ensure that fascists no longer have the power to hurt people, or that billionaires no longer have the power to mess with other people’s lives the way they do not. The U.S. armed forces have demonstrated over, and over, and over again that they cannot be trusted to handle toxic materials in a responsible manner, even if one was so lost to humanity as to approve of everything else they do. Empires come and go, borders change, and priorities change. At some point in time, the U.S. government will no longer control Hawaii, but they’re playing with poison over a water supply that could, if managed carefully, support human life on that island for centuries to come.

The way we’re going, it’ll end up being yet another place that has to rely on imported water, because someone couldn’t be bothered to invest enough to protect such a vital resource. At some point, we’re going to run out of places to import clean water from.

I started this post by mentioning the colonial aspect of the U.S. presence in Hawaii, and while the Native Hawaiian community isn’t the group “primarily” affected by this particular leak, it’s worth remembering that all of this is happening in a broader context. The main interest the U.S. government has in Hawaii is its usefulness as a military base. That usefulness does not require the people of those islands to have good lives, or even lives at all, so there’s little incentive to invest in protecting natural resources. This is demonstrated with murderous negligence like the saga of Red Hill, but it’s also demonstrated in what being part of the U.S.A. has meant for the people of Hawaii. A combination of tourism and rich people buying property is making life increasingly difficult for Native Hawaiians, to the point where they’ve been actively asking people to stay away. As with so many other aspects of our society, the way we do things right now just isn’t working, and the longer it takes us to accept that, the more damage will be done, and the harder it will be to clean up, repair, or recover from it.

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  1. Katydid says

    I spent a couple of years at an elementary school on a different military base. The elementary school had been built directly over barrels that held ???. A couple of years after I left, the ground started eroding and the barrels began appearing.

    Speaking of barrels of toxic waste; about 20 miles from where I am now, a developer built high-end homes on top of a toxic waste dump. That’s not military at all. The kicker; the homeowners didn’t discover it the first year, and according to state law, any defects in the property that are not discovered the first year are not the responsibility of the developer.

  2. says

    It’s horrific just how much of our society seems to revolve around finding ways for powerful people to avoid all accountability.

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