A Fuel Leak at a Naval Facility is Helping Spur the Hawai‘ian Sovereignty Movement

The November 2021 spill serves as a reminder of the impacts of Hawai'i's annexation on the people and environment of the island chain.

Demonstrators gathered outside the US military’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam entrance last month in a renewed effort to push the Navy to improve its response to a fuel leak above an essential Hawai‘ian aquifer.

The Navy has been working to rectify the damage of a massive fuel leak at a storage facility on O‘ahu, the state’s third-largest island, that was discovered in November 2021. The leak contaminated the water supply of about 100,000 military residents’ homes, forcing many to evacuate, and affected an even greater number of citizens across Honolulu and the South Shore. At least 6,000 people who used the contaminated water complained of nausea, headaches and other symptoms.

The Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility near Pearl Harbor, where the leak occurred last year, impacted local drinking water supplies. It is now scheduled to be emptied out by December 2024. A US Navy file photo of the facility by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Meranda Keller.

Currently, the Navy is installing water monitoring systems near the sight of the spill.

Following an order by the state of Hawai’i, the Navy has said it will drain the storage tanks by December 2024. However, for many residents on O‘ahu, two years is not soon enough.

“They’ve been treating it like an engineering problem,” said activist and artist Joy Enomoto. “They’re not treating it like a crisis or an emergency, which it is.”

The leak has increased momentum for the Hawai‘ian sovereignty movement. Hawai‘i was forcibly annexed into the United States in 1898, in large part due to business interests. It has since provided a key strategic location for the United States in the Pacific, with Pearl Harbor-Hickam housing thousands of military and support personnel and their families. The US military built the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility on Kapūkakī, a mountain just north of Honolulu, in 1943, to protect key fuel reserves from attack. It was here that the 2021 leak originated.

Not only has it threatened drinking water supplies, but the leak serves as a pointed reminder of Hawai‘i’s history and the impacts of its annexation on the people and environment of the island chain. In December 2021 activists built a shrine, or ko’a, a traditional response to depleted resources, outside the fuel facility. At the beginning of July, Ka’ohewai, a coalition of organizations dedicated to the defueling of the Red Hill tanks, gathered at the shrine.

“We’re occupying this space so that we can actually put a lot of our intention and energy, ceremonially speaking, spiritually speaking, into the ko’a,” said Kalehua Krug, a K-8 principal and Native Hawai‘ian organizer, “and bring people together to talk about de-occupation [of Hawai‘i], how to canvas, and how to become advocates of Hawai‘ian sovereignty.”

The demonstration, which started on July 1 and ended on July 10, took place as newfound footage was released by Honolulu Civil Beat depicting the leak. In shaky footage, a mixture of fuel and water sprays from a pipe and sloshes to the ground, falling through a small drain in the floor. The Navy now admits that operator error — a cart got loose then dinged a low-hanging PVC pipe full of fuel — caused more than 20,000 gallons to leak from the facility, potentially contaminating one of O‘ahu’s largest aquifers. Much of O‘ahu is made up of volcanic basalt, a very porous stone, which means other drinking water sources could become contaminated with the fuel. Many now fear that the stability of clean drinking water on O‘ahu, Hawai‘i’s most populous island, is under threat.

“We all know here that we cannot afford to wait two years,” said Andre Perez, a native Hawai‘ian organizer and farmer. “Two years is too long. The tanks are leaking every single day.” Critics also point out that the facility has sprung at least 72 leaks over the years. One leak in 2014 spilled 24,000 gallons of fuel.

Ernie Lau, the manager and chief engineer of the Board of Water Supply of O’ahu, said on a local access channel, “I just ask the Navy to please wake up, listen, see what’s happening to your own customers that are drinking fuel contaminated water. Those families are suffering. Please wake up and do something. Just take the fuel out of those tanks and pipes and move it elsewhere.”

“They [the Navy] supposedly are protecting our national security,” said Hanaloa Helelā, one of the organizers invited by the US Navy to visit the tanks on a tour this July. “As we can see, if they’re poisoning their own people, almost 100,000 of their own servicemembers. I don’t think they’re interested in the kind of national security we consider national security.”

Often the military, along with its servicemembers, are at odds with native Hawai‘ians who seek demilitarization or complete autonomy from the US. However, due to the great impact this crisis has had on O‘ahu, many Navy families and military personnel are on the same side as the protesters, demanding a defueling of the tanks for the safety of all on the island.

“There are still [military] families coming over to the ko’a to pick up water, saying there is still fuel in their lines, in their homes,” said Krug. “Even though the Navy’s not corroborating anything.”

“This is one of the few times where you have affected military families actually on the same side as Hawai‘ian sovereignty activists saying that this is a problem,” mentioned Enomoto.

While servicemembers may be more concerned with clean drinking water, for Native Hawai‘ians, the spill is also about an ethic of treating the land with care.

“If you pollute the water too much, if you don’t have enough fresh water coming out of the mountains, you won’t have proper breeding cycles in the ocean,” Krug said. “You must allow it the freedom to exist, the way it sees fit, as you exist.”

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