By Liz Walters
Concerns from hundreds of military families living on the Joint Naval Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawai’i about foul-smelling drinking water were dismissed on November 29th, 2021, by Naval Commander Captain Erik Spitzer, who assured residents the water was safe to drink. Spitzer declared that he and his staff were drinking the water, so surely reports of a gasoline-like odor, cramps, and vomiting were nothing to worry about. Then, less than a week later, on December 5th, Spitzer took to Facebook to issue an apology.
What had happened in the days between initial denials of water contamination and the issuing of the apology? As it turns out, the complaints of nearly 1,000 military and civilian households weren’t unfounded. Rather, a November 20th jet fuel spill at a fuel storage facility near the base had leaked into the water supply, rendering the tap water of 93,000 residents, both military families and civilians, hazardous to drink. Tested samples from the Red Hill water shaft, one of three sources of water for the base, contained “total petroleum hydrocarbons diesel range organic” 350 times the levels considered safe for drinking water. Tests also showed “gasoline range organics” at more than 66 times the safe level. In short, despite the base commander’s assurance on November 28th that the water on the base was totally safe to drink, it was indeed contaminated with petroleum and jet fuel. Just two days later, on November 30th, the state health department urged families to avoid using tap water for drinking, cooking, or oral hygiene.
While Hawai’i’s Department of Health warned residents on the base against using the water, the Navy continued to deny any danger. Behind the scenes, however, the Navy had halted the use of the Red Hill fuel storage facility and took its Red Hill water well offline on November 27th and 28th– without disclosing either decision to residents. In a December 2nd press release, the Navy admitted the Red Hill well had tested positive for petroleum, but insisted the levels were too low to be deemed dangerous. On December 5th, the day Spitzer took to Facebook to apologize for encouraging families to drink the tainted water, a town hall was held on the base where concerned parents, pregnant women, and nursing mothers spoke from their hearts to Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro. After apologizing for the anxiety caused by the leak, Del Toro stated: “My promise to you is we don’t just leave here and forget about you.”
A day later, Governor David Ige and the Department of Health issued an emergency order directing the Navy to further suspend operations of the Red Hill storage tank facility until independent evaluators could prove that appropriate actions were being taken to protect drinking water. They also ordered the Navy to treat toxic drinking water and plan to remove the fuel. The Navy, however, despite Del Toro’s apology and promise to take care of the military families and civilians affected, contested this order, arguing that the suspension of the Red Hill fuel facility would negatively impact Naval operations. Since then, the Hawai’ian government and Department of Health have been pleading with the Department of Defense to drain the tanks before another disaster affects the people of Hawai’i. The Navy has still not budged, despite orders from Hawai’i’s congressional delegation, the Honolulu City Council, and a 13-hour health department hearing, after which a state hearings officer called the Red Hill facility “a metaphorical ticking time bomb”.
This effort to protect the people of Hawai’i from their military occupiers is not new. Hawai’i’s Sierra Club and other local environmental organizations have been protesting the use of the Red Hill facility for years. Concerns that another leak was inevitable are not unfounded. The facility experienced leaks in January 2014, March 2020, and May 2021–and these are just the leaks the Navy has acknowledged. In the time since the 2014 incident, the Navy has done little with its increasingly bloated budget (now over $160,000,000,000) to address the clear problems at the fuel facility. Instead of considering, for example, the gradual moving of fuel to another location not directly above Oahu’s water supply, the Navy has used its power to keep its precious fuel where it is, despite the threat posed to its own members, their families, and the citizens of Hawai’i.
The catastrophic history of Red Hill and the Navy’s stubborn resistance to pleas for greater protection of residents of the area raise questions about the role of the military in the lives of the ordinary citizens in the land in which military units have inserted themselves. How can the military possess such exorbitant wealth and power yet not respect and protect the most basic human right, safe drinking water, for the very people responsible for their functioning? How could the Navy allow its own service people, their families, and the civilians on the base to consume poison for days, knowing full well that a jet fuel leak had taken place above the water supply on November 20th? Why is the Department of Defense fighting tooth and nail to guard its fuel instead of prioritizing the health of its service members, their families, and the people of Hawai’i?
The answer is simple: the military establishment does not care. The Pentagon and its higher ups have continuously failed to prioritize the health and safety of military members and their families. The Red Hill disaster is just one more example of the Department of Defense’s disregard for human lives when those lives get in the way of their expensive, deadly operations. Does this disregard make you as angry as it should?
—Liz Walters is a third-year Psychology major at Boston University and an Intern at Massachusetts Peace Action.