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Task and Purpose reporter on the Navy's water crisis response, the plight of displaced families

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday tour the Red Hill fuel storage facility on Dec. 6, 2021.
Office of the Secretary of the Navy
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday tour the Red Hill fuel storage facility on Dec. 6, 2021.

Congressmembers of the U.S. House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness grilled the Navy on Tuesday about the release of thousands of gallons of fuel that made its way into the drinking water in military housing — and possibly in nearby communities on the military’s water system.

The issue got the attention of Task and Purpose, an online outlet focused on military issues. It was started eight years ago by veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces.

The Conversation talked to reporter Haley Britzky, who has written stories about the plight of displaced families and the response to the water crisis.


On the Navy's initial response to reports of contaminated water in homes

HALEY BRITZKY: I spoke with some families and some folks down there who were impacted. And I think that's such an important point that you made about, you know, sort of that lag where families were saying, we're seeing these problems. And the Navy was kind of a little bit behind saying, well, our tests are showing that the water is safe, but everything is okay. And I think that really set the Navy back as far as, you know, having the trust of the communities and the residents on their base — which Navy officials sort of addressed for Congress, the importance of rebuilding that trust, and allowing residents to regain confidence that those officials are taking care of them and providing the most accurate information. But it has definitely been a trying and stressful time for people down there. People are impacted who, you know, can't live in their homes, who don't feel safe living in their homes. It's been a very long few weeks for them. I have no doubt.

On the Navy's announcement that it will comply with the state order to begin plans to defuel Red Hill

BRITZKY: That was something that I know environmental groups in Hawaiʻi and even outside of Hawaiʻi have been talking about for a long time. One of the questions that kept coming up at this hearing was, you know, that the Navy was saying that they think the reason behind the fuel leak in November, the most recent one, was because of an operator error. Several of the lawmakers were saying, well, if it's an operator error, how is defueling going to address that. But I think for a lot of groups who have been watching this, we know that there's a history of these kinds of fuel leaks. There was one last May that the Navy is now saying, they're going to be investigating to see if that's somehow related to this most recent leak. This is not the first time this has happened. And so for a lot of people who've been watching this closely, the defueling process is incredibly important and an incredibly important step to see the Navy take.

On community response to the Navy versus the Army

BRITZKY: It really has been so interesting seeing the difference in responses from soldiers and their families versus sailors and Navy personnel, and people kind of living under that command. We saw they had multiple town halls. Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam did, various Navy officials, some Air Force officials, and the Army was having their own town halls. And just seeing the response, even just in the comments on those town halls on Facebook, were night and day, so different in how people were responding to the Army — thanking them, saying we trust what you're saying, thank you for going out of your way, thank you for taking care of us. And you look at the Navy's town halls, and sort of the way people were responding there. I mean, people were saying, where's the Army? Can't the Army come in here and take control of this? Like you're letting us down. And it really was just such a stark difference. And we also saw some acknowledgment of that within the Army. For that report that you mentioned, I obtained some internal emails from an Army Command Chief of Staff who was just sort of informing his own team of how things were going. And he mentioned several times that the Navy is saying the water is safe, but that is not our position, the Army's position is that it's not. And so for days after those first reports started coming in, in late November, there was just this complete break in messaging between the two services that I think made it very confusing for people, and again, just sort of undermined that trust in Navy officials moving forward.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Jan. 12, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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