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Environmental advocates keeping a watchful eye on Red Hill facility

Army Lt. Gen. Spellmon, Brig. Gen. Gibbs tour Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility
Sgt. Sarah Stegall/Joint Task Force Red Hill
FILE - A group with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tour one of the empty tanks at Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, Halawa, Hawaiʻi, Feb. 24, 2023. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Sarah Stegall)

It’s been almost four months since firefighting foam concentrate spilled at the Navy's Red Hill fuel storage facility.

It’s unclear why it’s taken so long to release the report about what led to the discharge of the toxic chemicals containing per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. They are also called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down.

Across the Pacific Ocean in Okinawa, residents have been living with water contaminated by PFAS at a nearby U.S. military base, according to Jon Mitchell's documentary “Nuchi nu Miji - Okinawa's Water of Life."

Mitchell said the military has not allowed Japanese officials to enter the base and investigate the contamination themselves. Using Freedom of Information Act requests, he said he found records of multiple firefighting foam spills.

Marti Townsend, the former head of the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi, recently attended a screening of the documentary in Honolulu. She said there are parallels between Okinawa and Red Hill on Oʻahu.

The military said about 1,100 gallons of toxic fire-suppression foam leaked at the Red Hill facility in late November 2022.

"Okinawa is where Oʻahu is going to be in a few years, right. For however long it takes the PFAS contamination that was not removed to percolate down into the water, we will be in their situation," Townsend said.

Townsend also recalled a sinking feeling when she first heard about the fuel contamination in the Navy water system in November 2021. At the time, she was in COVID isolation at a hotel in Iceland.

She said critics used to call her an alarmist about the facility's risk to Oʻahu's drinking water.

"I was scared from the first news report that there was jet fuel in the water. And the way the military was denying it, like, 'Oh, this isn't Red Hill, this is something else.' I mean, I had that feeling in my naʻau that this was it, we were living through it," she said.

Townsend now works at Earthjustice, which is still keeping a watchful eye on Red Hill.

The military is in the process of shutting down the World War II-era facility and removing millions of gallons of fuel from its storage tanks. The Navy has said it can defuel the Red Hill facility by July 2024.

"They announced that they no longer need the tanks for national security. And people celebrated. They announced that it's going to be shut down, people celebrated. And so now they think that, you know, Red Hill's handled, it's over. And it's not over. Red Hill is not pau, and we need to brace ourselves for it to get worse," Townsend told The Conversation.

This interview aired on The Conversation on March 6, 2023. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1. This interview was adapted for the web by HPR's Sophia McCullough.

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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