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Former health department official recalls frustrations working with Navy on Red Hill

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A former Hawaiʻi Department of Health official says the recent fuel-contaminated water crisis is the worst-case scenario everyone feared after 2014's major fuel leak at the Navy's Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility — exactly eight years ago on Thursday.

Gary Gill was the DOH Deputy Director of Environmental Health from 2011 to 2015. He says the most frustrating part of working with the Navy is coordinating with multiple departments and chains of command within the military branch.

"I came to realize there really is no one Navy that we could deal with. You have the Pacific Command, and you have the Pearl Harbor command, and you have the Defense Logistics Agency, and you have NAVFAC, which is their engineering command," he said. "It's such a large beast, the Navy here in Hawaiʻi."

That doesn't even include the chain of command from the Pentagon to the White House, Gill said.

He also characterized the Navy’s three-point program for public relations as “deny, delay and distract."

"Like, 'This is not a problem, oh, it's gonna take us forever to fix it and cost too much, and, you know, go think about something else.' It's really frustrating — sitting down, trying to get this organization to step up and trying to help them," Gill said.

"The whole mission of the Navy is national defense and projecting American foreign policy through the Pacific to Asia. The whole reason that you and I are speaking English right now is because the Navy really coveted Pearl Harbor 150 years ago as a coaling station," Gill told The Conversation.

"They were just going to stack some coal there during the Hawaiian Kingdom days so that they could fill up coal on their steamships. And that turned into this huge military base, and it just has so much momentum behind it — to protect what it has. This Red Hill facility, no admiral wants to be the guy who lost this facility for the Navy and Pearl Harbor," he said.

Thursday marked the eighth anniversary of a fuel spill of nearly 30,000 gallons from the Navy's Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility underground tanks into the surrounding area.

This segment aired as part of a special call-in show on The Conversation on Jan. 13, 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.
Russell Subiono is the executive producer of The Conversation. Born in Honolulu and raised on Hawaiʻi Island, he’s spent the last decade working in local film, television and radio. Contact him at talkback@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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