© 2023 Hawaiʻi Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Residents get opportunity to speak directly with military officials defueling Red Hill

Red Hill open house might seem like an oxymoron to some. The event on Tuesday was not an actual welcome mat to the Navy's underground fuel storage facility that was kept under wraps for so long in the name of national security.

But for the hundred or so community members who went out to Keʻehi Lagoon Memorial Park, it did mean direct access to military personnel like never before to understand this chapter of Red Hill.

The U.S. military last week proposed an October start date for a plan to drain the World War II-era fuel tank facility that poisoned people on the Navy water system after it leaked jet fuel 18 months ago.

Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Michelle Link, the deputy commander of Joint Task Force-Red Hill, is an engineer brought in from Washington, D.C., specifically for this unprecedented mission to defuel the civil engineering marvel that has turned into a liability.

"The sheer scope and magnitude and complexity of everything that has to be in place before we can actually begin moving fuel was pretty significant," Link said. "To be able to say at this point that we really have things well integrated and we're on track and we're ready, provided conditions are met to begin defueling in October, is a pretty significant accomplishment that I'm very proud of the team for."

Members of the public told HPR that they appreciated the opportunity to hear firsthand from the military. Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau, a Pearl City Peninsula resident still on the Navy’s water system, a member of the Native Hawaiian Civic Clubs, and the head of the Democratic Party, Dennis Jung, attended the open house.

"What they have done gives me great confidence that they're going to succeed. So I'm very happy that I came out here to see what's going on. I think everyone should come down if they have the opportunity. I think it's very important that we be informed about what our government is doing to protect us," Jung told HPR.

Retired federal firefighter Kalani Whitford put together an emergency response and defueling plan for Red Hill before he retired in 2012.
Catherine Cruz
Retired federal firefighter Kalani Whitford put together an emergency response and defueling plan for Red Hill before he retired in 2012.

One man at the open house was a kūpuna voice we had not heard before, Kalani Whitford. He retired after 45 years as a federal firefighter and Navy man. He wrote an emergency response and defueling plan for Red Hill before he retired in 2012.

"Then I went through these last five years of doors slamming. They don't want to hear me. Now tonight, I'm here at the opening for the Navy defueling plan and talk story with the community," he said. "The more voices they hear that is interested in this, the more they going gauge that everybody is not sitting back and taking this lightly."

Whitford said he felt he should attend this event to share knowledge from his firefighting days and working at Red Hill. He said that after retirement, he helped install the emergency response system he designed, putting in over a thousand pieces of equipment like smoke, heat and vapor detectors.

"When I look at my grandchildren in the eyes, I see the days of my youth. Trying to contemplate and thinking about what could happen to them in the future, I'm not gonna be here, but what I can do before I leave is to be able to get in here and get the water clean, as much as possible," he said.

This interview aired on The Conversation on May 24, 2023. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1. This story was adapted for the web by 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.
Related Stories