Jet fuel in Hawaii’s drinking water the latest example of military’s negligence
It’s safe to say that Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro’s Hawaii visit didn’t go exactly as planned. Though he initially went there to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he soon found himself fielding questions at a town hall on December 5 about a fuel leak contaminating the tap water of around 1,400 residents at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The fuel leak appears to have come from the World War II-era Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, which holds about 150 million gallons of fuel.
At the town hall, service members and their families voiced concerns about symptoms of nausea, headaches, and vomiting. A woman who worked at a daycare reported the babies’ skin “as red as our flag.” Another woman, holding back tears, detailed how she had to put down her sick dog. One man I reached out to for this story was recovering from an emergency gallbladder surgery.
This isn’t the first time the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility has threatened Oahu residents. In 2014, Red Hill leaked about 27,000 gallons of jet fuel. The old, poorly maintained facility is regrettably situated a mere 100 feet above one of Oahu’s main aquifers, which services drinking water to nearly one million people. Just two months ago, Hawaii’s Department of Health fined the Navy $325,000 for failure to maintain corrosion protection of the metal tanks. Even more concerning, the Navy’s own study found that the possible frequency of a fuel leak of up to 30,000 gallons is 27.6 percent every year. We know that the tanks are corroding and we know that these tanks will continue to threaten our water, so why doesn’t the Pentagon close or relocate Red Hill?
Despite these alarm bells, the Navy has actively fought against closing Red Hill. In 2020, the Hawaii State Senate introduced a bill that would have required the tanks to be decommissioned by 2028. Nearly everyone who testified supported the bill — so much so that one of the few dissenters only did so because they mistakenly thought it was a bill about dispensaries selling CBD. Yet, the Navy lobbied hard against it in an attempt to sway Senate opinion, claiming that it was an “architectural marvel” necessary for national security and making promises that they would fix Red Hill’s problems. Ultimately, the bill was removed.
Even more concerning, the timeline doesn’t quite add up, raising suspicions that the Navy withheld information. Residents reported symptoms such as nausea, gastrointestinal issues, and headaches much earlier in the year. On November 28, these complaints swelled as the tap water began smelling like fuel. Yet, on November 29, the joint base’s commander still maintained that “there are no immediate indications that the water is not safe.” The Navy didn’t confirm until Friday, December 3, that testing revealed levels of petroleum hydrocarbons and vapors in the water. At the town hall, impacted residents didn’t mince words about this troubling timeline; “Whatever you knew before this incident became widely publicized and picked up internationally by the media is between you and your maker,” said Lauren Bauer, a military spouse.
The response to Pearl Harbor-Hickam’s water contamination goes to show the strength of organizing in holding the military responsible, even on a local level. Following days of complaints, the Navy temporarily suspended use of the Red Hill Bulk Storage Facility on December 7. Furthermore, the Honolulu City Council introduced a bill that would require the Navy to have a permit to operate the tanks unless it proves that the tank system will not leak regulated substances into the environment.
This problem goes beyond Oahu; it’s part of a pattern nationwide of the military’s abdication of environmental responsibility. In 2017, the U.S. Naval Station in Virginia Beach spilled 94,000 gallons of jet fuel in the Atlantic Ocean. The Pentagon produces more hazardous waste than the five largest U.S. chemical companies combined. Air Force bases have contaminated tap water with toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS at at least 328 military installations, despite acknowledging their toxicity in internal reports as early as 1973. As it turns out, forever wars attract forever chemicals.
At its core, this is an accountability issue. The Pentagon failed to protect the very service members who took an oath to protect America and has to be reined in. At the same time as hundreds of service members suffered from damaged water contamination at Pearl Harbor-Hickam, the Pentagon celebrated the House’s passing of the $768 billion National Defense Authorization Act. Given these backwards priorities, it’s no wonder that trust in the military has plummeted to below 50 percent.
According to a ProPublica investigation, the estimated costs of cleaning up hazardous military sites in the United States would be $28 billion. Though this appears steep, contrast this with Rep. Mike Rogers’ (R-Ala.) successful proposal to increase the NDAA by $25 billion, which included appropriations for aging cruisers, an amphibious assault ship, and new submarines.
When service members are getting sick from drinking jet fuel, it’s hard not to question why appropriations are going towards new toys rather than preventing environmental contamination in places like Pearl-Harbor Hickam. National security adviser Jake Sullivan rightly says that “American foreign policy has to be judged by a basic question: will this make life better, easier, safer for families across this country?” When it comes to the decision of whether to preserve the status quo in Red Hill and other military facilities that pose a severe environmental risk to nearby populations, the answer is a resounding no.