Since World War II, a huge U.S. fuel storage facility was hidden within a mountain ridge overlooking Pearl Harbor. It has supplied fuel for military ships and planes that traverse the Pacific Ocean.
For years, its existence was kept secret. It was not declassified and few people noticed it — that is, until last year when jet fuel leaked into a water well. This contaminated tap water, which in turn sickened thousands of military housing residents.
The Navy is now trying to contain what one U.S. lawmaker refers to as a “crisis in astronomical proportions.” Hawaiian veterans, liberals, and conservatives are all pushing for the shutdown of the tanks, despite the fact that the Navy claims they are vital to national security.
More than 5,900 patients have been seen by military medical teams complaining of nausea, headaches, and skin rashes. About 4,000 military families have been moved into hotels by the military, and water treatment systems have flown in from the U.S. mainland.
The Navy spent over $250 million to address the public health emergency in the six weeks immediately after the water crisis.
“Frankly, it has been a nightmare and disaster. U.S. Rep. Kaiali’i Kahele described it as a “total disaster”.
Kahele, a combat plane who is still an officer in Hawaii National Guard, was the lawmaker who described the crisis at December’s hearing as “astronomical”. Admiral stated that the Navy is to blame.
Last month, Navy Rear Admiral Blake Converse, deputy Pacific Fleet commander, stated that the Navy was responsible for this problem.
Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility was built by the military in the 1940s. It was constructed using caverns dug into the mountain ridge. This facility protected 20 fuel tanks against aerial attacks. Each tank can hold 12.5,000,000 gallons (47.32 millions liters) and is approximately the same height as a 25-story building.
Underground pipelines connect the tanks to the tanks, which transport fuel approximately 2.5 miles (4 km) to Pearl Harbor.
The Navy isn’t able to determine how the petroleum entered the water. Officials are looking into the possibility that jet fuel escaped from a burst pipe in May and entered a fire suppression system drain pipe. Officials suspect that fuel leaked from the second pipe in November 20, allowing it to enter the drinking water well.
Within one week, families of military personnel began complaining about their health.
Lauren Wright remembers feeling nauseated, skin peeling and vomiting. She stopped drinking, showering, and washing dishes with the water from her home.
She said, “I am proud to be a Navy spouse, but this does not make sense — to do this for your families.”
Wright, her husband, a sailor, and their three children, ages 7-17, have lived in Honolulu hotels since December. The Navy paid for them to have clean water.
The Navy has been working to remove petroleum from the well and pump it out the aquifer. Officials are also flushing clean drinking water through the Navy’s water system, which supplies 93,000 military personnel and civilians in and around Pearl Harbor. To flush water pipes, teams have visited individual homes and workplaces.
Wright stated that Marines who were sent to flush a neighbor’s house received two days of training but failed to follow a checklist and had to learn how to do it by an expert neighbor.
She said, “We are all afraid we will be forced into toxic homes and sent back to them.”
2014 was the year of the first major complaint about the fuel complex. 27,000 gallons (133,000 liters) leaked out of one tank, but didn’t reach the drinking water.
The Navy blamed ineffective oversight and contractor error. The Sierra Club of Hawaii and Honolulu’s water utility raised concerns that leaks could enter one of Honolulu’s most important drinking water sources, which is located 100 feet (30 metres) below the tanks. However, the Navy refused to allow the Navy to move the facility.
The city’s aquifer supplies over 20% of its water needs. Honolulu’s water utility cut off three wells after the latest oil spillage to stop petroleum from entering the utility’s drinking waters.
The possibility of water shortages and rationing in summer could be a concern for about 400,000 residents of Waikiki and downtown.
Last month, the Navy stated that it would follow an order from Hawaii Gov. David Ige (a Democrat) ordered the Navy to drain the tanks, and to not use them until it is safe. It reversed course and asked for more time to solve problems.
Although the Navy said that draining tanks would not affect short-term Pacific operations in the Pacific, commanders stated they would provide classified briefings to Congress members on longer-term implications.
Many Hawaii residents, including Republican State Rep. Bob McDermott believe that the dangers posed to the tanks make it worth removing the fuel complex. Two sons of a Marine veteran are currently in the Navy: one is a Marine veteran, and another is at Marine Corps boot camp.
“I am very close to the military but these things too old. It’s that simple. McDermott stated that they must fill in these infrastructures with dirt if they are going to plan for the next century’s infrastructure.
The 51 state House of Representatives members signed a petition to Lloyd Austin, the Defense Secretary, asking for the deactivation of tanks. They are being considered by state senators.
The four-member Hawaii congressional delegation secured language in recent legislation that requires the Navy to examine fuel storage alternatives.
Esther Kiaina, a Honolulu council member, stated that public trust in Hawaii’s military could be shaken if it doesn’t shut down the tanks.
“This is a turning point. “This is a turning moment for the military’s relationship with Hawaii,” stated Kiaaina. He was an Interior Department assistant Secretary during the Obama administration.
She said that if they are not shut down, it could affect the military’s ability obtain lease extensions for state land under sites such as Pohakuloa Training Area (a Big Island site used both by the Army and Marines).
Converse, the deputy Pacific Fleet Commander, stated during the congressional hearing, that the Navy was working to restore public confidence.
Converse stated, “We are deeply committed to restoring safe drinking waters in a way that builds trust and protects Hawaii’s land and waters.”
Since the early 1900s, Hawaii has been an important strategic outpost for the U.S. Military. It established a coal refueling station at Pearl Harbor to fuel steam-powered warships. Defense spending now accounts for 8.5% Hawaii’s gross domestic products.
Activist protests forced the Navy to cease bombing Kahoolawe Island in 1990 for target practice. Colin Moore, a University of Hawaii professor of political science, stated that this time the opposition to military operations is stronger because it involves water.
He said, “I don’t believe they have any friends at the island at this stage.”