Petroleum Spill In Hawaii Contaminates Drinking Supply For Thousands
Alana Casanova-Burgess: This is The Takeaway, I'm Alana Casanova-Burgess from WNYC studios. Filling in for Melissa Harris-Perry again, good to be with you today.
This is America, and, for decades, we've known that there's nothing more American than apple pie, and also chronically polluted drinking water. The latest example came around Thanksgiving when thousands of gallons of petroleum spilled at Red Hill, a World War II-era facility in Hawaii, contaminating the drinking water near a military base.
5,000 people have since reported illnesses related to the contamination, 3,000 families have had to relocate, 93,000 people were warned to stop drinking the water. To put that in perspective, that's just under the number of people affected in Flint, Michigan a few years ago, and the spill may be linked to an earlier one in May.
Just as in Flint and other communities with contaminated water around the country, the crisis has been downplayed by top officials. Take what James Balocki, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy said at a hearing last week over the state's order to cease operations and drain the fuel at Red Hill.
James Balocki: An urgent and compelling situation perhaps, not a crisis. I would describe a crisis as an imminent and compelling threat to human life. I've been in combat so I know what crisis looks like. This is a situation that can be remedied with the resources that have been brought to bear, not a crisis, not a crisis, not a crisis.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: The Navy issued an apology for the comment several days later. A recent investigation found that petroleum levels in the water were 350 times above what could be considered safe. Not only that, but according to state health experts, some of the tanks in the facility have not been inspected at all in the last 20 to 40 years. One woman spoke of how the contaminated water has affected her family at a Hawaii Department of Health hearing earlier this month.
Woman: I'm here to ask why you weren't a wingman to protect my 13-month-old son that I was bathing him, when I was giving him a sippy cup full of water from my faucet, when he has been throwing up for days on end?
I'm here to ask why you weren't my wingman as my husband and I have had mysterious symptoms such as sore throats, burning in my stomach? I'm here to ask why you weren't there protecting my family when we make a heartbreaking choice to put my beloved dog down after a mysterious illness and thousands of dollars trying to discover why suddenly after being healthy she was having coughing, choking, vomiting, difficulty breathing?
James Balocki: Not a crisis, not a crisis, not a crisis.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Mahealani Richardson of Hawaii News Now has been reporting on the story.
Mahealani Richardson: There are twenty 12.5 million gallon fuel tanks. That's 12.5 million gallons each of fuel and they sit 100 feet beneath the surface. They are buried, they are underground. Those 20 tanks sit 100 feet above an aquifer with pristine water. For years, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which is the city system, has been warning that there could be a disaster because they sit above precious water. These tanks were built during World War II by the military, by the Navy as an underground fuel storage tank for an energy reserve.
Right now they are crucial for the military in terms of energy reserve, the Pacific, the Indo Pacific Theater, threats from China, threats from Russia, so there is a big battle right now in Hawaii over these fuel tanks.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: I understand 93,000 have been told not to drink the water, is that right?
Mahealani Richardson: Right, 93,000 people are on the Navy's water line. There's more than a million people that live on the Island of Oahu. This is only impacting people on the Navy's water line and 93,000 people have been told, "Do not drink the water." If they smell fuel, they've been told "don't bathe with it," but if they're just on the Navy's water line and they can't smell anything, then they could still use it for other purposes in their home, but 93,000 people are basically using bottled water or they've moved out into a hotel.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: There was a pipeline break way back in May. I know there was also one in November, but back in May, Navy engineers said that involve maybe 1,600 gallons of fuel but that number has been revised, I understand?
Mahealani Richardson: Right, it was initially reported as only 1,600 gallons of fuel and just within the past few days, after a contested case hearing between the Navy and State Department of Health, we now know that Navy investigators think that it could have been 19,000 gallons of fuel, and was also just revealed that that May spill could be linked to a November spill where there was 14,000 gallons of fuel.
There is a lot of distrust, quite frankly, from many people in the community because people want to know what's going on, how much fuel has been leaking over all these years? Part of the things that have come out from this contested case hearing recently, is that the DOH, the Department of Health believes that there could be perhaps even 5,000 gallons of fuel spilled every single year, and we're just discovering more and more about this.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: That contamination is shocking, but as you reported, as you mentioned, it's not exactly surprising. Local officials and environmental advocates have been warning about this for a really long time. Why did they suspect something would go wrong?
Mahealani Richardson: It's interesting because the fuel tanks are 80 years old, and they've been sitting underground. We live in a salt corrosive environment. This is Hawaii, and they have been saying, for years, that these tanks that were built during World War II are susceptible to leaks. Now the Navy, for its part, has said it is not the tanks that are leaking, any leaks that have happened have happened along the pipeline.
This pipeline is sitting above Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam and they lead all the way to the tanks. It's a gravity system. Since the spills have happened, they have actually shut down the Red Hill fuel tanks, but the controversy right now is that the State Department of Health, of the Sierra Club, of several lawmakers, a lot of the activists in the area, they want the Navy to permanently shut down the fuel tanks and to drain all of the fuel, that's millions of gallons of fuel from the tanks. That's what the main controversy is right now.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: What's the Navy saying in response to what the Department of Health is asking them to do?
Mahealani Richardson: The Navy is fighting this right now. The Navy said that these tanks are crucial for international defense, and they don't want to drain the fuel from the tanks because that is a massive operation in itself. The Navy at the same time says, "Yes, we need to have clean, fresh water for our military families and for the Navy housing and military housing that is surrounding the base."
The Navy right now is spending millions of dollars trying to, literally, suck out the contaminated fuel with skilled divers who are going down deep into these holes. They're going down deep into these hot, tight spaces, and using-- it looks like big vacuum cleaners to me just literally sucking out this oily water from the ground. They've also brought in 21 massive filtration systems. They've been described as basically large Brita filters that are scrubbing the water and they're doing this basically neighborhood by neighborhood.
Once that's finished, then they have to flush and scrub house by house by house. The numbers are actually really astounding, 5,000 families who have reported illnesses from the tainted water, and 3,000 people have been displaced because of this crisis.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: I understand 93,000 have been told not to drink the water, is that right?
Mahealani Richardson: Right. 93,000 people are on the Navy's water line, and 93,000 people have been told, "Do not drink the water." If they smell fuel, they've been told, "Don't bathe with it," but if they're just on the Navy's water line and they can't smell anything, then they could still use it for other purposes in their home, but 93,000 people are basically using bottled water or they've moved out into a hotel.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: How can this be resolved if-- it sounds to me like what you're saying is that there are local activists, there are local officials, there are even state officials and they're in conflict with Navy officials who are saying that this is not a crisis. Who can actually step in here and force a resolution?
Mahealani Richardson: A lot of people are looking at our four members of Congress as really the congressional team that can put the pressure on the military. You may or may not know, there is a separate Pentagon inspector general investigation to look at the leaks, to look at the safety of the Red Hill tanks, but people are looking at our four members of Congress to put the pressure on the Navy, and for their part, the four members of Congress have not come out and said that the Red Hill tanks need to be permanently shut down and the fuel taken out.
They say that they need more information, but there's immense amount of pressure on Congress to finally act because the criticism for many environmental activists is that Congress has failed to act because of the military's influence. The military has a vast influence in the islands of Hawaii in terms of our economy, in terms of jobs, and just in terms of how we operate here.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: You mentioned that there's a lot of distress, what's the relationship been historically between the Navy, the space, local communities? Is there a concern that other water supplies could be contaminated by the same issue?
Mahealani Richardson: Absolutely. Just specifically relating to this issue, the immediate crisis started around Thanksgiving. There were a series of statements by the Navy that were conflicting. Initially, they said that the water was not contaminated. Then when dozens of samples were tested, they were all below the EPA action levels. Their news releases said no contamination or contamination well below action levels, but dozens of samples had trace amounts of jet fuel in it and higher ups in the Navy said no contamination but these Navy engineers on the ground said no amount of contamination or no amount of jet fuel is acceptable.
In terms of a historical sense, Native Hawaiians who are the indigenous people to Hawaii have had a very long and complicated history with the Navy. That has sparked feelings of more resentment, or feelings of control by the Navy once again. There have been protests on the island. There have been protests in front of Navy property, and there have been promise of more protests.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: It's not just a health or economic concern, there's also a spiritual connection to the water for Native Hawaiian communities, right?
Mahealani Richardson: There is a spiritual connection. What's really interesting, Alana, I have never seen an issue that has unified so many different people. When I say that, I mean, you have Native Hawaiians who want these Red Hill tanks to be shut down because they are so concerned about water. Water is life or Ola I Ka Wai, what they say in Hawaiian. There are also people who are concerned as well. You have these military wives who are speaking out for their families because their husbands cannot and they're concerned about the water.
You have other people who don't live near the military housing areas or the base who are concerned that if the Navy doesn't clean up the contamination, it could spread to public areas much farther away. I mean, miles and miles away. This is something that City Board of Water Supply engineers have been warning about and they have felt that their cries of alarm have fallen on deaf ears and so now people are paying attention.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Is this exposing some colonial fractures?
Mahealani Richardson: Absolutely, Native Hawaiians, and when I say Native Hawaiians, I don't necessarily mean people who were born and raised here. I mean the indigenous culture of Hawaii, the people who have been here for much longer before, basically, white men came here, white people came here. When I say the indigenous culture, I mean Native Hawaiians.
The history of Native Hawaiians with the military has been long and complicated. From the overthrow of the monarchy. There was a point where the Navy was bombing an island called Kohoolawe for target practice. That was a controversy for years, so much so in the 1970s Native Hawaiian activists swam to this tiny island to prevent the military from using the island as target practice.
Yes, there is a long history. The Navy for its part has worked for years to build trust, to build relationships and to really try to focus on environmental restoration on the island of Kohoolawe and several other areas on the island of Oahu that had been used for military practice.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: What does the future look like for Hawaii's water supply?
Mahealani Richardson: At this point, and a lot of people have asked me, "Is it safe to drink the public's water?" If there is to be, let's say, a hero in the story, it is the chief engineer Ernie Lau of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply. He has ordered more frequent testing of the public's water to make sure that the Board of Water Supply continues to deliver clean, pristine, non-contaminated water for the rest of Oahu.
I think what got people to really wake up to the situation is, when people asked what was the threat to the public water situation, he basically said it is at risk, it's under threat and he got choked up. This longtime bureaucrat got choked up saying, "There's still time, there's still time for us to do something and to act." When he got choked up and you could see the emotion, it was really astounding to a lot of people that we all need to wake up, we all need to act, and we all need to make sure that this drinking water remains pristine for the rest of the island.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Mahealani Richardson is a reporter and anchor with Hawaii News Now. Thank you
Mahealani Richardson: Alana, thank you.
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