Hawaiian climate activists
Michaela Quan

The Red Hill Leak: How the U.S. Navy Has Poisoned Hawai'i's Waters for Decades

This op-ed details the history of militarism and colonialism in O'ahu.

Anna Chua, a Malaysian Chinese and Indonesian community organizer with the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi and Oʻahu Water Protectors, contributed to this piece.

Late last year, a leak from a U.S. Navy facility poisoned the water supply of approximately 93,000 O'ahu residents with jet fuel-tainted water. Let's call it what it is: a mass atrocity. An act of astronomical violence. Today, families say they are still experiencing health issues and reporting oil sheens in their water. Today and for the indefinite future, O'ahu faces a catastrophic threat to its sole-source aquifer — likely the biggest water crisis it has ever seen.

I organize with the O'ahu Water Protectors, an intergenerational movement fighting to bring attention to the devastation this leak continues to cause. Our waters, lands, and sovereignty are threatened by the violent imprint of the U.S. military. People think of our home as a beautiful, tropical oasis, and it is. But as demilitarization scholar and organizer Kyle Kajihiro reminds us, “The image of paradise masks the violence that's going on.”

To understand what we’re experiencing today, I need to take you back in time.

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What is the Red Hill water crisis?

The Red Hill Underground Bulk Fuel Storage Facility was built in secret during World War II, 100-feet above O'ahu's principal drinking water source: the Moanalua-Waimalu aquifer, which has some of the purest, most abundant water. The Red Hill facility was declassified five decades later, and the public subsequently learned that there were 20 underground fuel-storage tanks, each 250-feet high, sitting right above O'ahu's aquifer, which spans the whole south-central island plain. Currently, the facility stores over 100 million gallons of fuel, including two types of jet fuel — JP-5 and JP-8 — and marine diesel.

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Here is where the issue stands: As we now know, for the past eight decades, the facility has been leaking fuel into the porous lava rock below it. Due to the complex hydrogeology and location of O'ahu's groundwater aquifer, the fuel that has infiltrated the porous lava rock can leak at any given time, speed, and direction. 

In December 2021, after the Red Hill leak, the Board of Water Supply halted operations at its Hālawa Shaft, which sits a mile away from the Red Hill facility, as well as its 'Aiea and Hālawa wells as a precautionary measure. Until the Hālawa Shaft’s possibly permanent closure, it supplied water to 20% of urban Honolulu. 

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We already face impending climate destabilization, and now drought-stricken O'ahu has been asked to conserve water by 10% before we launch into a full-fledged water crisis in the coming hot summer months. Also, the Navy recently revealed to the Water Commission that it is violating its water-use permits by overpumping from its Waiawa Shaft, currently the Navy's only drinking water source, by a million gallons of water a day, based on a 12-month average. The Commission will be issuing a notice of violation on top of its ongoing work to modify the Navy's water permits.

This ongoing crisis is not a recent phenomenon. The Red Hill facility has been leaking since at least 75 years ago, when the first known leak occurred in 1947. The following year, an earthquake caused a massive leak, and the largest-known leak was 27,000 gallons, in January 2014. Since 1943, at least 180,000 gallons of fuel — likely more — have leaked from the Red Hill facility into the surrounding environment. And since the Navy entered a legally enforceable agreement with state and federal regulators in 2015, it has presented damning evidence of the deteriorating and hazardous state of its facility while continuing to offer superficial reassurances.

We are in a beyond-dire situation, yet this is merely a peek into the cascade of consequences that loom over us if this cycle of systemic violence persists. The violence inflicted on Kapūkaki (Red Hill) and our wai (water) is part of a pattern created and perpetuated by imperialism, which gives the United States military impunity. We feel gaslit by the Navy’s insistence that the water is safe to drink, when affected community members have provided evidence that their water may still be contaminated. There’s little accountability or transparency, if at all.

The fact remains: Every day that fuel sits in those tanks, life on O'ahu is at risk of catastrophic destruction. Again, let’s call it what it is: The Navy’s gross negligence is tied to historical and ongoing colonial and environmental violence, of which Red Hill is a prime example. This summer, while we suffer the consequences of the Red Hill leak, the U.S. Navy will participate in the biennial Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC, military exercises, inflicting further violence on our oceans, shores, land, and peoples. 

Vigorous grassroots organizing and endless tab-keeping on the Navy are necessary for our survival and the protection of wai. We have come this far because of our relentless rage and commitment, and we must not let them get away with it any longer.

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What is the history of U.S. military occupation of Hawai'i?

I first learned about the illegalities surrounding the ongoing occupation of our homeland as a 16-year-old, and soon got involved in the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. The impact of the United States military on our islands goes beyond oil sheens that sicken local and military families. 

Ever since the U.S. Marines participated in what is internationally recognized as the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, in 1893, the people of Hawai'i have witnessed one environmental and social disaster after another. The purported “annexation” of Hawai'i to the United States paved the way to further transform lands — that once fed as many as one million kānaka maoli people — into mono-crop plantation systems that have undermined Hawai'i's food and environmental capacity. 

Starting in the mid-1900's, two expansive industries replaced agriculture as the heart of our economy: tourism and militarism. The expansion of U.S. militarism has created various issues: the development of Red Hill, the bombing of the island of Kaho'olawe, and the creation of dozens of superfund sites that continue to pollute Hawai'i.

I have learned from artist and healer Puni Jackson that “the health of the land reflects the health of the people,” and right now our lands remain poisoned. We live in conditions that nourish poison fruit, and until we remove the root of the problem, nothing will change.

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Youth from across the world are leading calls for justice, requesting a United Nations investigation into the Red Hill water crisis. Because this problem doesn't only affect Hawai'i: Around the world, in places such as Guam, Rongelap, Enewetak, and Okinawa, the U.S. military has inflicted grave environmental damage. And as the U.S. military takes itself into the future, it's clear the organization does not mind taking our land, air, and water along with it. 

Although there is an economic addiction to militarism in Hawai'i, we should not allow it to diminish the ability of future generations to be able to drink and eat from lands that have sustained our people for over 2,000 years. The negligence of the Navy and other military branches has strengthened our movement and determination to demilitarize and deoccupy Hawai'i and the world. Our addiction to the United States military needs to be healed for the sake of our children's children's children.

The journey to developing a demilitarized future will not be easy, but as we have learned during our history, it is through struggle that we can find an alternative means of life that brings healing to both land and people. Now is the time to reengage in an understanding shared by academic Manu Meyer: Indigeneity is no longer a conversation on race but on continuity. We come from a culture of continuity — an alternative to the dominant culture of war and its capitalistic needs. We have lived without them before and we can do so again. Our question to everyone is: What future will our descendants have if we continue to let institutions like the United States military poison our sources of life — our land, air, and water?

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