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Local officials, activists praise Red Hill closure announcement with cautious optimism

People wave signs in front of the Hawaii state Capitol during a rally calling for the closure of the Navy's Red Hill underground fuel storage facility near Pearl Harbor, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022 in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)
Caleb Jones/AP
People wave signs in front of the Hawaiʻi State Capitol during a rally calling for the closure of the Navy's Red Hill underground fuel storage facility near Pearl Harbor, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)

Updated 3:45 p.m. March 7

Hawaiʻi's congressional delegation and local leaders praised the Defense Department's decision Monday to permanently shut down the Navy Red Hill fuel tank facility that leaked petroleum into Pearl Harbor's tap water. Some officials and activists voiced cautious optimism, warning there is a lot of work ahead.

The facility, built into the side of a mountain during World War II to protect the fuel tanks from enemy attack, leaked into a drinking water well and contaminated water at Pearl Harbor homes and offices in November.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the closure will protect the population and the environment, and will also lay the groundwork for a more secure military fueling system. He said Red Hill made sense when it was built in 1943, "but it makes a lot less sense now."

Hawaiʻi Gov. David Ige said Austin called him Monday morning to share the decision. Ige said the announcement is “great news for the people of Hawaiʻi."

“This decision comes late for the Navy water system users who have borne the greatest burden of this humanitarian disaster, but it’s nevertheless reassuring that the imminent threat posed by this troubled facility will finally be addressed," the Hawaiʻi Department of Health said in a statement. "On behalf of the people and environment of Hawaiʻi, we will remain vigilant to hold the Navy accountable to render the drinking water supply safe and to address future contamination concerns.”

Hawaiʻi's congressional delegation echoed the state's sentiment and said they will work with federal officials, and monitor military spending, to ensure a safe defueling process.

U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and U.S. Reps. Ed Case and Kaialiʻi Kahele
U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives official portraits
U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and U.S. Reps. Ed Case and Kaialiʻi Kahele

“There will be challenges ahead, but make no mistake: Red Hill will be shut down. In order to implement this decision, we’re going to have to provide additional resources and hold DoD’s feet to the fire through congressional oversight," U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono said she has been encouraging the Pentagon to make that shutdown decision for weeks.

"I will work closely with DoD to ensure the Department has the resources to develop and implement a long-term plan to ensure we are able to meet the strategic fuel reserve needs of the Indo-Pacific Region and protect national security as the nation shifts to a more distributed force posture in the Pacific," said Hirono, who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Pentagon said it will move to a more dispersed fueling system for military ships and aircraft in the Indo-Pacific.

"To a large degree, we already avail ourselves of dispersed fueling at sea and ashore, permanent and rotational. We will now expand and accelerate that strategic distribution," Austin said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who is on the House Appropriations Committee, said he will work to secure funding for closing Red Hill, and for ensuring national security through the fuel storage plan.

U.S. Rep. Kaialiʻi Kahele said, "While today is truly a day to celebrate, we must do so with cautious optimism. For while today may signal the end of the Red Hill as a fuel storage facility, it is only the beginning of the hard work ahead."

Kahele and Honolulu officials also praised Ernie Lau, head of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, for his leadership and advocacy of clean water over the years. The Navy's water system and the BWS use the same aquifer that sits underneath the fuel tanks.

“At this point, the extent of contamination and environmental damage is not yet known. We know fuel continues to drip, as we speak, from the rock formations into our fresh water aquifer right now," Kahele said.

The Board of Water Supply said it will continue to keep its Halawa Shaft, Aiea Well, and Halawa Well shut down until it is clear that the fuel contamination has been contained in the Navy's Red Hill Shaft.

"When this will occur is uncertain," the BWS said in a statement. "The BWS will continue to watch the situation as it unfolds at Red Hill and stands ready to support where needed."

Lau said, "Assuming that the Navy is committed to defueling, we expect that the Navy will dismiss their state and federal challenges to the Dept. of Health’s Emergency Order. Further, we assume that the Navy will withdraw their permit application to operate the tanks. We ask that the Navy confirm that they will take these actions."

The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement CEO Kuhio Lewis said he appreciates the decision but the department "must also focus on understanding and remediating the existing contamination from previous leaks."

Attorney David Henkin from Earthjustice, which represents the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi in legal proceedings, told Hawaiʻi Public Radio, "We can't forget that for years, the Department of Defense has been saying that the Red Hill facility is completely irreplaceable — and that if you shut it down, national security will be imperiled."

"It's hard to take, frankly. It just destroys trust when they say one thing on Sunday and another thing on Monday. The announcement is great, but what we need to see is prompt action to protect the water supply of this island," Henkin said.

The head of the Sierra Club, Wayne Tanaka, echoed Henkin, saying, "I think we all need to continue paying close attention to what the Navy does to make sure that there's action behind its words. And really until we get this fuel away from our water supply, we're not safe, and we need to be made safe as soon as possible."

Sophia McCullough is a digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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