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The Conversation

Gov. David Ige on communication with the Navy, the order to suspend Red Hill operations and more

July 2021.jpg
Office of Gov. David Ige
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Gov. David Ige on July 30, 2021

Hours after Gov. David Ige ordered the military to suspend operations at the Red Hill fuel storage facility and move toward emptying the fuel tanks, Ige sat next to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro at the 80th commemoration ceremony marking the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Del Toro visited the World War II-era fuel facility a day prior.

While the Hawaiʻi congressional delegation is leaning on Ige to ask President Joe Biden to declare a disaster due to the water contamination, Ige said he is still looking into it.

In an interview with The Conversation's Catherine Cruz, Gov. David Ige talks about the Navy Red Hill fuel storage facility, the order to suspend operations, the Western Governors' Association conference, and more.

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CATHERINE CRUZ: For the second time in a week, the Hawaiʻi congressional delegation has asked that you ask President Joe Biden to declare an emergency.

DAVID IGE: We are looking at it and under what conditions we can declare an emergency. There is criteria that's required and clearly this is an unusual situation. So it does involve federal property, which we have very little jurisdiction over. And so part of us looking at it is: what benefit that would be and how the situation would change from where we are right today.

State House lawmakers want the Navy to decommission Red Hill, do you agree with that call?

Well, certainly, it's a lot more complicated than that. It is a strategic asset, it is integrated into operations at Pearl Harbor and Hickam so clearly a lot of the question is: what would the impact be? And there also is a concern about the movement of fuel in a system that we're not certain what the integrity of the system would be — and would there be more risk introduced by defueling, or removing fuel, than currently exists? Especially in light of the fact that we don't know the source of the contamination at this point. We want to make sure that we can get the best experts to help us evaluate this current situation, hopefully, help us identify the source of contamination, and then what the appropriate steps would be to clear the contaminants from the water system. And then long term, looking at whether the facility can be operated in a safe way, what improvements are required to reduce and eliminate the risk of contamination, and certainly about whether there would be long-term alternatives to the fuel storage tanks under Red Hill. I think all of those questions are questions that need to be answered. The order does order the Navy to stop immediate operations at the facility, and then assemble a team of experts who can help us in defining the way to move forward.

We understand that the Navy's asked for more time.

Right now the current statute provides for the Navy to contest the order within 24 hours. We recognize that the Navy might need more time and so we're working to discuss how much additional time they would need, and if they have specific questions about the order itself.

The Navy has promised to be more transparent. After that town hall meeting this past weekend where the admiral said he was confident they've discovered the source, but didn't really go into detail, I get the feeling that they're sharing some information with the Department of Health and the Board of Water Supply, but they are not at liberty to share it broadly.

I think we all understand the urgency of identifying the contamination where the contamination is happening, because that's the only way that we can develop a plan to eliminate or mitigate what's happening in the Red Hill shaft. So in our discussions with the Navy, they certainly have a sense of urgency in trying to do that. I think we are all, as we get more information, trying to determine what would be the best way to definitively identify the source of contamination so that mitigating action can be defined and can be undertaken. I think that the Navy, in our discussions, has a theory about where the contamination is occurring or how it occurred. But they haven't been able to develop a specific plan of action that would allow us to confirm that, in fact, that theory is accurate — and you know, and what the source of contamination is and how to remove it or mitigate it moving forward.

Is it safe to say that they're sharing things with the regulators that are not being disseminated broadly?

They did create a crisis action team, and I know the Department of Health is meeting regularly, daily for the most part, with the Navy. We are getting more timely information. The state has taken water samples and sent it out to get test results. We know that we want to test the water more broadly in all of those communities that complaints have been filed. And that really gives us a better sense of where the water has been contaminated, and gives us a better sense of what the source of the contamination might be.

You raised your family in the Pearl City area. So this is kind of your backyard — Aiea, Halawa, Aliamanu. Are you comfortable with what the Navy is telling us at this point?

Yes, I am. I do know that at the very beginning, it was difficult to get information and we weren't getting information in a timely manner. I do believe that those bottlenecks have been resolved. They are providing a lot more information to the State of Hawaiʻi. We've discussed how we might be able to get more data. We definitely want to and we've both been taking samples from the surrounding areas. We're committed to providing and sharing the data that the state gets as soon as we get it. And we've asked the Navy to do the same. We are asking for better information about the total system: what the fuelling system looks like, what the water distribution system looks like — so our investigators can get a better idea of where the contamination might have occurred. And I think most importantly going forward about what improvements can be made to reduce the risk.

Have they turned up anything in the other communities? In the Iroquois Point area, which is I think still under the military's water system?

We haven't at least in terms of, we have been testing, it doesn't seem like there are a lot of complaints from that area. We're trying to make sure that we understand where the complaints of odor in the water and that kind of information is coming from, and try and really identify on a map where most of the complaints are. We are working to get water samples from all of the addresses that have called in to say that the water smells or they can see something in the water. The more that we can get that water tested, the better idea we'll have of what specific geographic locations are experiencing contaminated water. And that would help inform us about potentially where the point of contamination might be.

Are you still planning to attend the Western Governors' Association conference?

I do have reservations and I'm scheduled to participate. Obviously, the weather events and a whole bunch of other things has come up. We are evaluating my continued participation in that conference versus the things that need to get done here at home. (Editor's note: The governor's office later confirmed that Ige will attend the conference in Coronado, California.)

If you leave, I know the lieutenant governor becomes acting governor, are you concerned at all about what he might do in your absence?

No, I'm not concerned. I think the lieutenant governor is part of the cabinet. He certainly has been informed and he does participate, he's on the calls on the weather emergency. He has been involved with COVID. So I think he's fully aware of most of the issues that are top of mind in the community and within state government.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Dec. 8, 2021.

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