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Red Hill crisis could be a pivotal moment for discussions on the U.S. military's future in Hawaiʻi

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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

Native Hawaiians have long had a contentious relationship with the federal government — and the military in particular — over its land use, from the bombing of Kahoʻolawe to water contamination at Red Hill.

Some Native Hawaiians say the pending shutdown of the U.S. Navy’s Red Hill fuel storage facility may be a turning point for the wider island community to join Native Hawaiians in questioning the military’s role in Hawaiʻi’s future.

The water contamination crisis encapsulates the history of distrust some Native Hawaiians have for the military.

University of Hawaiʻi Professor of Hawaiian Studies Kamanamaikalani Beamer says at the heart of that conflict is the military’s perceived poor stewardship of Hawaiʻi's natural resources.

"Trust is based off of historical relationships and evidence and people's behavior and all we really have to go off of here in Hawaiʻi, unfortunately, is a series of actions that have been negligent to our islands’ resources," Beamer said.

The Hawaiʻi Department of Health says the tap water in all residential areas served by the Navy’s Pearl Harbor water system is safe to drink. The announcement comes more than three months after petroleum from the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility leaked into a Navy water well and sickened thousands. HPR's Scott Kim has more.

Native Hawaiians have sustained themselves for centuries in large part because of the way they utilized the resources available to them.

"As kanaka, part of what defines us and makes us who we are is our relationships to place and familial perspectives, ancestral perspectives with ʻāina and wai. So it's a really proud moment that our people stood again and, people stood alongside us," he told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Beamer is referring to the decision to shut down the U.S. Navy’s Red Hill fuel tank facility.

The last time Native Hawaiians successfully fought the military over the use of its natural resources was in 1990, when the U.S. Navy ended some 50 years of bombing on the island of Kahoʻolawe.

Two state Senate committees advanced legislation Tuesday to appropriate more than half a million dollars for restoration efforts on the island of Kahoʻolawe. HPR reporter Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi has more.

Some Native Hawaiians see the Red Hill situation as a watershed moment. While in other instances, they found themselves opposing the military alone, the extent of the water crisis at Pearl Harbor brought together an unprecedented alliance of federal, state and local officials as well as residents in opposing Red Hill.

"It's unfortunate that this crisis happened, but the silver lining is being able to raise the consciousness of other communities and groups that otherwise would never actually critique the role of the military here in Hawaiʻi," said Healani Sonoda-Pale, a Native Hawaiian community leader.

She says the community’s perception of the military will play a critical role in conversations around its soon-to-expire state land leases, such as the Pohakuloa and Kahuku training areas.

For its part, the Navy recognizes the rift that has been caused by issues such as the Red Hill fuel contamination crisis.

Honolulu’s water utility is asking 420,000 Oʻahu residents to voluntarily cut their water use by 10%. The utility is taking the step because of concerns about dry weather and the Red Hill fuel leak that has forced it to shut down three wells.

Rear Admiral Tim Kott, Commander of the Navy Region Hawaiʻi, said in a statement that the Navy is deeply committed to restoring the trust of all people of Hawaiʻi, including Native Hawaiians.

"We know, however, that process will take time and must be earned through our actions not just words. We've committed to the closure of Red Hill and have made great strides to return safe drinking water to families in military housing; however, much work remains," Kott said.

"As we continue our efforts to close the fuel storage facility, we hope to work with the Native Hawaiian community to help guide us towards a better future that balances the interests of the environment, the native host culture, as well as the nation," Kott told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

There's been a lot of news and information about water contamination from a leak at the Navy Red Hill fuel storage facility on Oʻahu. While clean-up efforts continue, the history and issues surrounding Red Hill began long before. These are the recent developments you need to know.

Beamer calls the Red Hill crisis a pivotal moment for discussions on the future role of the military in the islands.

"You know for many people in Hawaiʻi these questions on the military's role in our economy and in our island's future is being debated and questioned, rightfully so," he said.

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