The Platform

Tunnel at the Red Hill underground fuel storage facility. (U.S. Navy)

A fuel leak at a World War II-era storage facility has sickened thousands of Hawaiians but little is being done to fix the problem.

Since November, thousands of people living on Oahu have not had access to clean drinking water as fuel from Red Hill, a World War II-era storage facility, has leaked and continues to leak into the water supply. Nearly 93,000 people have fallen ill, lost clean drinking water, or been forcibly displaced from their homes. Many have reported foul odors and symptoms of illness since last spring.

More concerningly, the crisis has the potential to grow significantly worse. Just 100 feet below the Red Hill fuel facility is Oahu’s sole drinking water aquifer. Consequently, if the U.S. Navy does not remove the leaking tanks, hundreds of thousands of Hawaii residents will be left without drinking water.

A water contamination threat in dire need of solvency should be receiving national attention. Yet, as further evidenced by Michigan’s Flint water crisis, Washington nearly never prioritizes the health of its people and the safety of its infrastructure over economic and military interests. Even as President Joe Biden writes that “every American and every child should be able to turn on the faucet and drink clean water,” he has never publicly acknowledged the leaks at Red Hill, let alone attempted to solve them.

Washington’s trivialization of environmental policy issues is not at all limited to Biden. Red Hill alone has posed risks since it was built, but politicians have never adequately addressed the issue. Since its construction during World War II, Red Hill has leaked 180,000 gallons of fuel from 76 different spills. The very design is flawed, as no fuel tanks directly above a critical aquifer can completely guarantee safety.

As the deputy attorney general of Hawaii wrote, “The evidence shows that the Red Hill Facility is simply too old, too poorly designed, too difficult to maintain, too difficult to inspect, along with being too large to prevent future releases.”

Yet still, the U.S. Navy denies that Red Hill has created enough risk to be shut down. Instead, the military is resisting an order to close the facility in court, citing financial concerns associated with draining the tanks.

These concerns are illegitimate. The U.S. Navy receives over $200 billion in funding each year, while Hawaii’s largest industry, tourism, only brought in around $2 billion in 2019. If anyone can afford to take necessary precautions to protect Hawaii’s water supply, it is the U.S. Navy. Their refusal to shut down Red Hill comes not from any financial incapability, but rather a blatant disregard for the safety of the Hawaiian people and environment–something the U.S. Navy has a history of.

After the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941, the U.S. military declared martial law in Hawaii and began using its sacred lands as military testing grounds. The U.S. Navy relentlessly bombed Kaho’olawe, a sacred island where Native Hawaiians learned to read the stars, with thousands of tons of explosives to simulate a nuclear bomb blast. This dealt irreversible damage to ancestral lands–Kaho’olawe’s cap rock is now destroyed, leaving the island without any sources of fresh water.

Even if the U.S. Navy closes the Red Hill facility, it will not solve the structural issues plaguing Hawaii that enable crises like Red Hill to emerge in the first place. Since armed invaders forcibly removed Hawaii’s sovereign monarchy in 1898, military and imperial interests have ravaged the people and lands of Hawaii. In Dean Itsuji Saranillio’s book Unsustainable Empire: Alternative Histories of Hawai‘i Statehood, he details how sugar planters and military invaders cleared native forests for plantations and military bases, leaving only 5% of native forests intact. This drastically altered the ecology of Hawaii, significantly reducing the amount of rainfall the islands received and shifting the climate from wet to dry. Today, the military and the government shift the burden of the water crisis they created onto Native Hawaiians, diverting water away from Native communities to supply bases and luxury resorts for mainland tourists.

Today, Hawaii has been transformed into a massive military base, with the military occupying 22% of Oahu’s land. This land was never the U.S. Navy’s, and it was never free for them to take. It was stolen from Native Hawaiians. In fact, the military disproportionately places bases in areas where minorities live, as minorities often have less political power to push back due to years of disenfranchisement. Years of military occupation have shredded Hawaiian life, with 50% of all homeless people in the state being Natives. But Hawaiians have fought back, with Native organizations being directly responsible for the end of the bombing tests on Kaho’olawe. Today, groups like O’ahu Water Protectors are once again fighting for clean water in Hawaii.

Something has to change. The military cannot be trusted with the sacred, unique treasures of Hawaii–the land belongs to the Native Hawaiians, who were stewards of the land for centuries.

Currently attending school in Washington, D.C., Irene Zhao mostly writes content exploring the global impact of foreign policy. Outside of writing, Irene competes on her school's debate team and enjoys reading about world affairs.